This could have been a breakout year for José Ureña. The Marlins trusted him to deliver the very first pitch of the 2018 MLB regular season and gave him every opportunity to lead their starting rotation. In a platform year leading into arbitration eligibility, Ureña was poised to earn fame and riches as one of the faces of the franchise.
Unfortunately, he has decided to shun that fame for notoriety.
Ureña’s “signature pitch” is the up-and-in fastball to an opponent’s star player, often resulting in a painful hit by pitch. Wednesday night’s intentional plunking of Braves rookie outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. was just the latest example.
Even when trying to get outs, the right-hander has had mixed results: 129.0 IP, 4.74 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 19.2 K%, 51.8 GB%. Ureña entered the night with just one quality start in his last eight attempts.
Some fans will come to Ureña’s defense, in favor of this intimidating approach. FOX Sports Florida analyst Todd Hollandsworth describes him as a “fearless” pitcher, dead set on establishing the inside part of the plate against batters who otherwise would feel too comfortable in the box.
However, Ureña repeatedly toes the line between strategic and unsportsmanlike.
July 15, 2017: Ureña pitches to Yasiel Puig after Puig blasted a go-ahead, three-run shot in the ninth inning to lead the Dodgers to victory the night before.
Fearless or dirty?
Seems like Puig overreacted. The pitch had some arm-side run that made it tail further inside than intended. Even then, it didn’t come close to his body.
August 4, 2018: Rhys Hoskins walked against Ureña in his previous plate appearance to fuel a first-inning rally and owns historically dominant numbers when facing the Marlins.
Fearless or dirty?
Much more ambiguous this time. After starting off Hoskins with two balls, Ureña wants to get back into the count by...dialing it up to 96.3 miles per hour? I’m not really buying that (and neither is Hoskins).
May 8, 2018: Marlins left fielder/pitch magnet Derek Dietrich gets hit by a pitch in the fourth inning. Batting for the first time since then, Kris Bryant is in the midst of another NL MVP-caliber season.
Fearless or dirty?
Even though everybody stayed calm in the aftermath, this looks like textbook retaliation—responding to a HBP by issuing one to the best player on the opposing team. Once again, a mid-90s fastball “gets away” from Ureña. The Cubs got the last laugh by tying the game in that inning and ultimately winning, 4-3.
Which brings us to August 15, 2018: Acuña has ascended to international superstardom by going on a home run binge against the Marlins during the current series (4 HR in 3 G). He has, in particular, made a habit of mashing the first pitch he sees.
I won’t even bother asking the question: dirty, dirty, dirty.
Ureña stumbled through his post-game interview, pointing out the incentives he had to avoid an ejection while not actually expressing any remorse for potentially injuring another player. The intent was so obvious from the Braves’ perspective that benches cleared and manager Brian Snitker lost his temper enough to merit an ejection.
And yes, the Fish lost again.
Ureña is tied for the major league lead with 25 hit batsmen over the past two seasons combined. The majority of those were honest cases of missed location, but after the Acuña HBP, it doesn’t matter: he’s done enough damage to earn this reputation.
Poor fastball command isn’t an excuse, anyway. There can be serious consequences for the innocent batter, like in April when another up-and-in heater fractured the finger of Pirates infielder Josh Harrison. Even when unintentional, Ureña makes his teammates targets of retribution.
As a repeat offender, Ureña has left Major League Baseball no choice but to issue a significant suspension. Regardless of their ruling, the Marlins can take a strong stand by placing the 26-year-old on waivers this month for another team to claim.
In his introductory press conference last fall, Derek Jeter described an organization built on “respect, integrity and honor.” Don Mattingly echoed that line on Wednesday night, referring to Ureña’s conduct: “This is not something that we represent or that we believe in as an organization.”
Ureña had so much to gain from a focused and productive 2018 season, but still goes out of his way to incite conflict. He cannot be trusted to set an example for the Marlins’ rookie-laden roster or contribute to an eventual contender. Several of the top pitching prospects that were being coddled a few months ago now look capable of sticking in the big league rotation—they don’t need a placeholder anymore.
Let Ureña be somebody else’s problem.