Justin Nicolino just made a spot start for the Miami Marlins thanks to a blister problem on Andrew Cashner’s hand, and he gave up three runs over six innings. He also walked a batter while striking out no guys, continuing his persistent issue with whiffs. Meanwhile, the night before, Jose Urena put up a solid start of 5 2⁄3 innings pitched with one run allowed on a homer and six strikeouts versus two walks. It was another decent outing for a guy who was essentially presumed dead on arrival when he first got a shot at starting because, prior to his first start of 2016 on July 19, Urena had thrown 20 2⁄3 innings as a reliever and put up a 7.82 ERA with a 4.87 FIP. Those are some absolutely disastrous numbers that no Marlins fan was happy with, and given his struggles from last year as well, Urena was assumed to be a bad pitcher being given a shot due to necessity rather than merit.
That last part of the last sentence was true, but something is definitely different from the old Urena than the one who is starting games now. It should be noted, before we even go into this, that Urena is doing something better now than he did even last year: he is throwing the ball harder. Much like fellow starter-turned-reliever David Phelps, Urena also has picked up a few ticks on his fastball. Last year, BrooksBaseball’s algorithm for MLB GameDay data had him throwing his four-seam fastball at 94.8 mph and his two-seamer at 93.8 mph. This year, that is up to 96.5 and 95.6 mph respectively. That is an uptick of two miles per hour, which should theoretically add some serious effectiveness. And just like Phelps did in his move to the rotation, Urena has retained that velocity going from the pen to the rotation.
|Urena, 2016||Usage%||Velo (mph)||Horiz Break (in)||Vert Break (in)|
There is a reasonable drop in the four-seam velocity, but the two-seamer is at around the same speed with Urena working more innings. That points to this being potentially a “real” mechanical change rather than just the effect of working one inning versus several.
The major change in between these two settings that were strictly divided by Urena’s demotion back to Triple-A is the usage rate of his distinctly different fastballs. It seems Urena has dropped the use of his four-seamer in favor of working primarily his sinker pitch, and that has been a good choice for the righty. Urena is throwing the sinker as his primary fastball at nearly 52 percent of the time, and it has still worked well. The pitch is getting ground balls at a 57 percent clip when contact is made, and batters are whiffing on it 17 percent of the time. This is actually similar to the rate it got last year, but it is loads better than what the four-seamer did do last year. Even if the two pitches get the same number of whiffs, the sinker is a better pitch when contacted thanks to a higher grounder rate.
The book on Urena has always been that he had weird mechanics, an occasionally electric low- to mid-90’s fastball, and an average or better changeup. The changeup is indeed playing up well, as hitters are missing it at the level of a decent out-pitch. Urena could even opt to use it more often, as he is using it just 14 percent of the time total and 16 percent of the time versus lefties. His slider is fringe-average right now as well in terms of a pure stuff standpoint. So far, that has the makings of a decent starting pitcher with some nice upside.
The one problem is that while Urena has a harder fastball and has chosen the right one to use, its effectiveness is highly limited by his inability to command the pitch at all.
That heatmap shows you where Urena has been throwing his fastball against right-handed hitters. Righties from the catcher’s perspective stand on the left side of the strike zone, meaning that, unlike Phelps, Urena likes primarily to attack on the inner half of the plate and jam righties. This to some degree makes sense because his fastball has a natural break inwards to righties. This is a natural choice for righty sinkerballers.
However, while the location choice is fair, the results have not been where he wants them. Urena rarely misses up with the pitch, but when he does, he does so in the heart of the plate where it is most juicy. When he misses in, he misses in all over the place, with the reddest hot zones extending from the belt to the knees and way inside as well as around the zone. If you will recall, Phelps peppered pitches right around the outer half of the plate. When he missed, he missed in the zone almost entirely, and while that is not a good thing, it is better than what Urena is doing. No one should be swinging at those inside sinkers, and indeed the two-seamer has gotten a balls-to-called strike ratio of 2.7 to one.
Sinkerballers tend to have two-seamers that break about as hard as Urena’s. The starting pitcher leader in ground balls since 2014 is Dallas Keuchel, and his two-seamer has a break of 4.8 inches. Jaime Garcia is third with a break of 4.7 inches. Urena may not have enough downward sink on those pitches to get a 58 percent grounder rate, but above a 50 percent mark should happen. But the other step is to locate those fastballs, and that so far has been a barrier to success. However, at the very least, Urena has found some additional ways to use his tools to fight for a big-league job, and that is promising.