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José Ureña on the edge of glory

Ureña has the tools to become a bona fide ace. What does he need to do to take the next step?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

When I think about Clayton Kershaw, I think about the sweeping curveball. I thought it was his best pitch; recently however, I learned that said title belongs to a different pitch — his slider. On Tuesday night, prompted by a random statistic, Joe Davis of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ telecast recanted a story about Clayton Kershaw from 2009, which is also corroborated in an article written by Ken Rosenthal. Apparently, 2009 was the year when Clayton Kershaw reinvented himself into the ace he is today.

Per Davis, Kershaw was getting knocked around in 2009. Armed with just a hard fastball and an unwieldy curveball, Kershaw found himself in a predicament where hitters would lay off the curveball and wait for Kershaw to freight train a fastball. After a rough start to the year, then-manager Joe Torre, along with Don Mattingly and other coaches, brought Kershaw into his office to talk. They told Kershaw that he needed to make an adjustment if he wanted to be the ace he so desired.

So Kershaw went down to the bullpen between starts, and after experimenting with different grips, decided that he would try to throw a slider. The story goes, with AJ Ellis catching, that Kershaw uncorked his very first slider right there in the Wrigley Field bullpen. Kershaw asked Ellis something along the lines of, “Was that good?” Apparently, it was more than good. It was “game-ready.” Then and there, a star was born.

When I think of José Ureña, I think about the two-seam fastball. I think about how it almost broke all of Javier Baez’ fingers on Opening Day.

It’s hard to tell whether it was a hard-riding two-seamer or just a fastball on the hands; whatever it was, Baez saw one thing out of the hand, and then saw something entirely different just before it crunched his knuckles against the bat. Take that statement for what it’s worth; only Corey Dickerson swung at more pitches outside of the zone than Baez in 2017.

Still, Ureña’s fastball has the makings to be one of the deadliest in the game. The amount of tail that he creates at such a high velocity combines to create an extremely explosive pitch. Compare Ureña’s fastball with the two-seamers/sinkers of Rick Porcello and Marcus Stroman in 2017.

Horizontal movement and velocity of fastball/sinker. Left: Jose Ureña Right: Rick Porcello
Horizontal movement and velocity of fastball/sinker in 2017. Left: Jose Ureña Right: Marcus Stroman

It’s curious that Fangraphs and pitch f/x don’t characterize José Ureña’s fastball as a sinker, as it does for Porcello and Stroman, especially considering that Ureña’s “fastball” tails about 2-3 inches more than those of Porcello and Stroman, and not to mention at higher velocities as well. I would surmise that Fangraphs doesn’t bifurcate the data between Ureña’s four-seam and two-seam fastballs because he throws them at approximately similar speeds, in addition to the fact that his two-seamer doesn’t necessarily sink. Despite the statistical oversight, the fact remains that Ureña’s two-seam fastball stands with some of the best in the game when it comes to both break and velo.

But when Ureña took the bump on Opening Day, he had a hard time commanding his two-seam fastball. In the first inning alone, Ureña walked two batters, and hit three others, including the aforementioned Baez. His two-seamer averaged about 9.5 inches of tail, according to Pitch Info on Fangraphs. Ureña went on to allow five earned runs over four innings in the loss to the Cubs.

Whatever trouble Ureña was having on Opening Day disappeared a week later in his start against the Boston Red Sox. On Tuesday night, Ureña threw close to 20% more first pitch strikes, and coaxed about 10% more swings outside of the zone than he did on Opening Day. In stark contrast to his first game, Ureña walked just one, while striking out seven over seven innings.

So what was the difference maker for Ureña? Did his ability to reign in the two-seamer cause the improvement?

It did not. The difference was José Ureña’s use of the slider. When I think of José Ureña, I think of the two-seam fastball. But the Eye Test fails me; in reality, José Ureña’s best pitch is the slider.

José Ureña Pitch Weighted Values 2018

Date Team Opp GS wFB wSL wCH
Date Team Opp GS wFB wSL wCH
4/3/18 MIA BOS 1 1.2 2.3 -0.5
3/29/18 MIA CHC 1 -3 -0.5 -0.4

José Ureña Pitch Frequencies 2018

Date Team Opp GS FB% FBv SL% SLv CH% CHv
Date Team Opp GS FB% FBv SL% SLv CH% CHv
4/3/18 MIA BOS 1 49.50% 95.9 37.60% 85.1 12.80% 90.4
3/29/18 MIA CHC 1 58.10% 95.1 20.30% 84.3 21.60% 89.3

From Opening Night to his second start, Ureña threw close to ten percent fewer fastballs, and about 17 percent more sliders. For comparison, in just five of his 28 starts in 2017, Ureña threw fewer or as many fastballs as he did on Tuesday. He threw more or as many sliders as he did against the Sox in just two of his 2017 starts. This is in spite of the fact that his slider was worth over four more weighted runs than his fastball in 2017, and is currently worth over eighteen more weighted runs than his fastball for his career.

And the proof is in the pudding. True to the numbers, Ureña threw his best pitch more frequently, and shut down an extremely talented Red Sox lineup. While Ureña’s fastball improved from game one to game two, his slider also improved, and was his most valuable pitch once again at 2.3 weighted runs.

With that said, the moral of the story isn’t just for Ureña to throw the slider more. The takeaway is that Ureña needs to continue to throw the slider well. Just as was the case in the Kershaw anecdote, if Ureña fails to work ahead, he forces himself to rely on the fastball. When hitters sit dead-red fastball, runs get scored. According to Baseball Savant, whereas batters slugged .571 against Ureña’s four-seam fastball in 2017, they mustered an AVG of just .185 and a SLG of .349 against the slider.

But as mentioned earlier, in the Red Sox game, Ureña threw a first pitch strike to 72 percent of the hitters he faced. When Ureña gets ahead, the guessing game begins. Sure, it all comes out of the hand the same, but what’s it going to do? Is it going to ride in and break a bat in half at 97 miles-per-hour? Or is it going to back up and dive out of the zone at 85? The more evenhanded Ureña is with his pitch selection, the harder the game becomes.

At that point, the slider and the two-seam work off of each other. In the game against the Red Sox, four of Ureña’s strikeouts came against the slider. The other three came off of the two-seamer. Mix in the occasional change up, and Ureña gives himself a reputable repertoire to deal from.

This is a huge year for José Ureña, in many different ways. Aside from being handed the keys to the Corvette, Ureña is in his last year of total team salary control. This offseason, he will be eligible for arbitration for the first time. For the sake of both his team and his wallet, the onus is on Ureña to turn these raw tools - a wicked two-seamer and a devastating slider - into results. This last offseason, first-year arbitration pitchers Kyle Hendricks and Robbie Ray made around $4 million for their respective platform years. In said platform years, both pitchers were worth 2.5-3 fWAR and had ERA’s just above or below three. These are more than reasonable goals for a Number 1 starter; if Ureña wants to max out his money in 2019, (in addition to helping the team too..that kind of matters as well, sometimes, I guess), he should hone in on the adjustment he made in his last game, and shoot for a three fWAR season. Doing so may very well ratify Don Mattingly’s decision to make him the Miami Marlins’ Ace.

Statistics and pitch charts courtesy of