Over the past two weeks, Jose Urena has made a surprisingly compelling audition for the role of the Miami Marlins’ fifth starter. In two starts, he has allowed only two earned runs off eight hits over 11.2 innings of work. After being roughed up as a starter in 2015 and as a reliever for much of May, what has led to this stark turnaround? The answer centers on Urena’s difficult to hit two-seam fastball.
In 2015, Urena started nine games with poor results. He posted a 4.86 ERA and 4.43 FIP with only a 4.08 K/9. To put that in perspective, the average K/9 for starters in 2016 is currently 7.73. Urena’s stuff simply wasn’t fooling anyone, and that is a product of poor control and a weak changeup.
To further emphasize this point, let’s dig into more statistics. Often, to determine if a pitcher is hittable, analysts look at quality of contact stats. Quality of contact stats are split into three categories that represent how well a pitch has been struck: soft contact %, medium contact %, and hard contact %. As you would expect, a pitcher strives for soft contact as it is more likely a hard hit ball will produce a positive offensive outcome.
Over his nine starts in 2015, Urena only generated soft contact on 13.8% of balls hit off him. To put that in perspective, the worst soft contact percentage among qualified pitchers in 2015 was 13.6% (Colby Lewis). The second worse percentage? 14.6%. Anyone generating soft contact at such a low frequency struggles to succeed, Urena included. Why was he so hittable? Let’s take a look at Urena’s pitch frequency and outcomes in 2015.
Table 1. Pitch frequency and outcomes for Jose Urena in 2015
As you can see, Urena primarily relied on three pitches in 2015: the fastball, slider, and changeup. Unfortunately, two of these pitches were hit hard. Batters hit with a .370 wOBA against the fastball, and a .460 wOBA against the changeup. Why did Urena struggle with those two pitches? Because he has poor control due to the extreme pitch movement he generates. This hypothesis is supported by Urena’s high walk rate in 2015. He produced a 3.65 BB/9, well above the league average of 2.72. So, let’s take a look at that extreme pitch movement and how it causes Urena to miss the strike zone.
In 2015, Urena’s fastball ran an average of 5.5 inches horizontally toward right handed batters, 3.7 inches more than league average. His changeup also exhibited a lot of movement, particularly horizontally. The changeup ran an average of 6.3 inches toward right handed batters, 5.2 inches more than the league average. Consequently, Urena’s changeup was thrown for a ball 45.25% of the time, and produced only a 4.00% strikeout rate.
Since Urena’s pitches typically run toward right hand batters, we would expect him to miss frequently on the left side of the strike zone (from the catcher’s point of view). We can see this clearly in Urena’s 2015 zone profile.
As you can see by the “hot zones” of this profile, we were correct in assuming Urena missed most frequently to the left of the strike zone. These pitches didn’t fool batters either, as they only swung at fastballs outside the zone 25.1% of the time, and changeups 31.5% of the time. So, why do Urena’s pitches run horizontally? Let’s take a quick look at Urena’s release point in the figure below to answer this question.
As you can see in the above picture, Urena releases his pitches at 45˚ angle to the ground. This release point impacts the spin of the ball as it rolls off his fingers. In the above image, the right picture shows the typical spin of a Urena fastball or changeup caused by his delivery. I won’t get too much into the physics of pitch movement, but due to air resistance against the spin of the ball, the ball experiences Magnus forces which causes it to move/run in a particular direction.
In the case of Urena’s fastball and changeup, the spin he creates runs the ball up and toward right handed hitters. This is why he misses so frequently to the left side of the zone. However, if this spin he creates made it difficult for him to control his pitches in 2015, how has Urena been successful in his last two starts? Funnily enough, part of the answer is that his pitches move even more.
First, let’s take a look at Urena’s pitch frequency and outcomes in 2016.
Table 2. Pitch frequency and outcomes for Jose Urena in 2016
In general, we can see that Urena has become more difficult to hit as he has increased his strikeout percentage across the board. However, we still see he struggles occasionally with the fastball and changeup as batters are hitting with a .366 wOBA against the fastball and a huge .698 wOBA against the changeup. But, make sure to notice that Urena has added a new wrinkle that has really confounded opposing hitters: the two-seam fastball.
What makes this pitch so effective? Quite simply that it runs a staggering 9.4 inches horizontally toward right handed batters on average, which is 7.2 inches more than league average for a two-seam fastball. That is incredible movement, and it is no wonder that batters struggle against it. To date this season, batters are either fouling or whiffing on this pitch 55.27% of the time, and when the ball is in play it produces a ground ball 65.38% of the time. Consequently, Urena has generated soft contact 30.0% of the time. That is incredible. To put that in perspective, Jose Fernandez’s soft contact percentage this season is 21.8%.
In Urena’s two starts this season, he threw the two-seam fastball 57.5% of the time against the Philadelphia Phillies and 44.7% of the time against the New York Mets. Clearly, he is favoring the pitch as it brings him the most success. This does not mean that his success will be sustained, however. Let’s look at the zone profile of Urena’s two-seamed fastball over his last two starts. I will note that Brooks Baseball designates this pitch as a “sinker” (while fangraphs appropriately designates it as a two-seamed fastball).
Notice something familiar? Urena continues to miss outside the zone in the same location as last season. So, how did Urena have two excellent starts when he it would appear he struggled with his control? Let’s take a look at the swing rate zone profile on two-seamed fastballs over these two starts.
As you can see in the above zone profile, batters are being fooled by Urena’s two-seamed fastball swinging freely at pitches outside the zone. Hitters are probably swinging at these pitches because they appear to be in the strike zone when the ball leaves Urena’s hand. The pitch movement Urena generates eventually runs the ball outside the zone. The question becomes: how long will hitters be fooled? As batters become more accustomed to facing Urena’s two-seamed fastball, they will learn to become more patient and will be less likely to swing at those outside the zone pitches.
Urena has been impressive in his last two starts, but they may turn out to be fool’s gold. While Urena generates spectacular movement on some of his pitches, he struggles to control them. Similar to 2015, Urena continues to miss the strike zone on the left side due to the spin he puts on the ball. Once batters adjust and Urena begins to see himself in unfavorable pitch counts as he did in 2015, it won’t be pretty.
To truly cement himself as a reliable starter, Urena will have to improve his control. He will either need to adjust his aim to compensate for the movement of his pitches, or learn to decrease that movement so that he can throw with more pinpoint accuracy. I will say this: if Urena figures out how to control his pitches while maintaining their movement, he has the potential to be deadly. For the Marlins’ sake, let’s hope that happens.