The best seasons of José Ureña’s career came with Juan Nieves as his pitching coach in Miami, including Ureña's 14-win season in 2017. When Ureña looked for a new opportunity this offseason after spending his entire six-year career in Miami, seeing Nieves as the new assistant pitching coach in Detroit was good news.
“For me, he affected a lot,” said Ureña, who talked with Detroit reporters via video conference on Tuesday after signing a one-year, $3.25 million deal with the Tigers last week. “The way we were working in those years, every time we get out there, you try to keep on the same rhythm, try to fight and attack my strong way.”
Nieves wasn’t the biggest factor in his decision, but it helped him feel comfortable with a move to the American League.
“I don’t have anything in mind where I want to be,” he said. “The thing was just looking for an opportunity and get out there and help each other, even when those young guys come up. I’ll help with all I have. We can help each other and we can move forward.”
Ureña was worth 1.9 wins above replacement (per Baseball-Reference) in 2017 and '18, both seasons with Nieves as his pitching coach, and he became Miami’s Opening Day starter before injuries and inconsistencies plagued him the past two years. The Marlins non-tendered Ureña this offseason after he compiled a 4-13 record and 5.25 ERA in '19 and '20 combined. The Tigers offered not only an opportunity to be a regular starter again, but also a chance at a turnaround.
The shortened 2020 season was a relative nightmare for Ureña, who was scratched from his first start of the year due to COVID protocol, and he didn’t debut until September. He made just five starts and left his final one in the third inning after a line drive fractured his right forearm.
Ureña's forearm is good now, he said, and he’s currently on a throwing program. Now, he’ll try to get back to his old form.
“If you look back at ’17 and ’18, that was an idea of when I was healthy and I was complete. For ’19 and ’20, there was a lot of stuff. … For me, if I can go out there and be healthy, I think the longer I can be out there playing and competing, it’s better.”
One positive that came out of last season, despite the results, was Ureña widening his arsenal after hitters began to sit on his mid-90s sinker. When Ureña won 14 games in 2017, he used his four-seam and two-seam fastballs nearly equally along with his slider. The next two years, his two-seamer comprised more than half his pitches as he tried to attack hitters, get ground-ball outs and work deeper into games. Opponents hit the sinker for a .320 average and .495 slugging percentage in '19.
Last season was more of a return to previous form. While his sinker was still his dominant pitch, his slider became more important, and he dusted off his four-seam fastball.
“We opened up a little bit more of the zone, attacking with the straight four-seam on the outside corner, and it made a big difference when we came out with the slider,” Ureña said. “That will help a lot.”