Because he made his Major League debut in 2016, it often gets lost that Julio Urías is only 24 years old, with his best baseball likely still ahead of him.
Urías showed off his talent on the biggest stage during the Dodgers’ run to the World Series championship last postseason, recording some of the most important outs in franchise history. But after his impressive performance out of the bullpen, Los Angeles was eager to see what he could accomplish as a full-time starter this season.
The left-hander’s first impression in 2021 couldn’t have been better, as Urías dominated the Rockies’ lineup, allowing one run over seven-plus innings in the Dodgers’ 4-2 victory on Sunday at Coors Field. It was the longest start of Urías’ career, and it helped the Dodgers take three of four games to win the opening series.
“It can be as high as any top-end starter,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Urías’ ceiling. “A guy that can miss bats with a few different pitches, commands the fastball, gets left, gets right out, and can navigate a lineup three times through, which he’s shown he can do. … There’s no ceiling for him.”
After a hot start to the season, Los Angeles’ offense was quiet for most of the game, recording only four hits, including a Will Smith homer in the eighth. While hits were tough to come by, the Dodgers capitalized on four first-inning walks by Rockies starter Austin Gomber to take a 3-0 lead in the opening frame.
Most of the time, a three-run lead in the first won’t be enough to win at Coors Field, but with the way Urías pitched on Sunday, it was more than enough.
Urías struck out six and had allowed only one hit (a third-inning single to Gomber) through five innings. The Rockies recorded only two hard-hit balls against him.
“It felt great,” Urías said in Spanish. “All my pitches were working great. For it being Colorado, I feel even happier with the start, because I know how difficult it is to pitch here.”
Urías' efficiency played a big part in his success. The southpaw was painting his four-seam fastball on the outside corner and was landing his slurve for a strike while using it as a chase pitch. Urías threw 79 pitches, 59 for strikes.
“His fastball was playing well. His curveball, it was good today,” Smith said. “In the past, we leaned on that a lot more than we did today, but we really didn’t need to. He threw it really well, and it wasn’t squared up very much.”
But perhaps the biggest change for Urías has been the improvement of his changeup. He averaged 84.9 mph on the pitch during the 2020 regular season, but he increased its velocity last postseason, averaging 87.6 mph on 37 changeups.
Urías picked up where he left off Sunday, averaging 87 mph on the changeup and using it as his most effective pitch. He threw it 24 times, the third most of his 75 career outings. He also used the changeup to record four strikeouts, doubling his career high, while Colorado hitters went 0-for-11 against the pitch. The eight swing-and-misses against it were also a career high.
“It’s just throwing it more,” Urías said. “I’ve had games in the past [where it’s good]. Even when I came out of the bullpen, the changeup worked pretty well. Obviously, being here in Colorado, it’s tougher, but thankfully, it worked well, and so did the fastball and slurve. I’m really happy about that.”
With three former Cy Young Award winners on the Dodgers’ roster (Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Bauer and David Price) and Walker Buehler tabbed as a potential future Cy winner, it can be easy to overlook Urías. But with three-plus pitches in Urías repertoire, there’s no telling how much he can accomplish this season.
“Really fun to watch him compete. All the way around, fantastic,” Roberts said. “He just continues to get better. Usage, leverage, now he’s a bona fide Major League starter.”