One of the most important things you can do if you’re looking to glean useful information about a prospect in the low minors (or any player, really) is take in both good and bad performances within a narrow window of time. Seeing a player when he’s at both his best and not quite at his best gives you, as an evaluator, the ability to compare, contrast, and set ranges for present performance that are quite valuable in helping project potential and future value.
Take Mark Appel, for example. I saw three starts of his at Lancaster last summer, and they ranged from "bad," to "terrible," to "he knows the goal is to get hitters out, yes?" That was instructive to a limited degree, insofar as it painted a (quite bold) picture of the things he needed to work on moving forward. But it wasn’t particularly helpful in helping me paint the other picture, the one where Mark Appel does work on those things, develops some consistency, and rounds into form as a Major League pitcher. Half of the projection was left nigh-on entirely to my imagination, and that leads to a much greater degree of variance and interpretation.
On the other end of the spectrum, I had the good fortune to catch the Dodgers’ teenage prodigy Julio Urias with both good and not-so-good stuff last summer, albeit in team-sanctioned abbreviated looks. That I had the good fortune of this kind of variance with a prospect as unique as Urias was an added bonus. Last winter John gave the then-17-year-old Urias a B+, ranking him second in the Dodgers organization and 41st overall. Again, this was on the heels of his Age 17 season. This year’s Dodgers list will be out shortly, but spoiler alert: Julio Urias will again rate highly. So what makes the youngster so good at such a young age?
Well, let’s start with the stuff. It’s a legitimately impressive arsenal that stood out at the High-A level last year in its own right, entirely regardless of Urias’ relative youth. The fastball is easy velocity in the low-90’s, and he can punch with it in spurts in the 94-96 band when he wants a little extra. It’s fair to say his heater features a good bit of jump to it in additional to the raw velocity, as the ball consistently gets on hitters quickly and eludes barrel contact. He’ll show an advanced ability to manipulate movement and speed on the pitch already, with both cut and running variants featured heavily throughout a given start. It’s a 60-grade future pitch as things stand, and with even modest command refinement there’s another half-grade of projection there.
Urias also features a second true plus pitch, with a curveball that will take a couple different shapes. He’ll toggle the velocity anywhere from 77 to 83 and feature multiple depths and velocities for this pitch within the same at-bat, particularly to left-handed hitters. The softer version sweeps a bit earlier and runs away to his glove side with a sharp one-to-seven break. At the higher end the pitch darts hard with a late two-plane break that shows effectively against left- and right-handed hitters alike. He’ll lose the pitch in zone on occasion, but the unpredictability of its shape and velocity allowed him to get away with loose command at the level. He’ll obviously need to tighten up the pitch as he advances, but there’s more than enough raw material here to project a 60 future value for the pitch, again with room for a bit more.
The chance-up came and went through my viewings last summer, though when he rotated through the pitch properly and got it turned over it flashed as another easily above-average pitch with true plus potential. The pitch works with a hard drop and fade to the arm-side, and he showed an impressively advanced feel for commanding down in the zone to righties. The release remains inconsistent at present, with some occasional difficulty maintaining his slot and arm speed with the pitch. But the movement and fastball plane both suggest the makings of another potential 60 pitch that should play to a 55 at minimum.
The control and command still have a ways to go, largely because, well, he’s 18 and needs additional reps. The base mechanics are fluid, though there are a couple cautionary elements to the delivery that need smoothing as he advances. His wind is geared around an extremely powerful hip rotation and excellent arm speed. He’ll take a deep step back at first move and brings the front leg all the way across to a high leg kick that generates a ton of momentum in his coil. He can lose control of that generated force at the top, however, and fail to harness the torque his hips create with an aggressive push off his back leg. The arm gets into position with very little extraneous movement, but it will nonetheless lag to his release point when that back leg stays too vertical. When he misses he usually misses arm side, and it’s because he isn’t able to get all the way over his front leg and drive through the release on time despite the impressive hip action.
This particular mechanical issue was pervasive throughout the not-as-good start I caught last summer. Against a weak-hitting Inland Empire lineup Urias fought his command for much of his four inning stint, ultimately limiting the damage to a long two-run homerun by 66ers’ catcher Zach Wright. He struggled to hit his release point and get the ball down consistently from the start, and when coupled with a shrinking strike zone as the game wore on the result was a visibly frustrated teenager by the end of the outing.
Fastball command came and went and hitters generated loud contact on a couple mistakes, including the aforementioned dinger on a 92 mile-an-hour offering that was center cut and belt high. He also had little feel for his change-up in this start, routinely leaving it out of the strike zone up and to his arm side. Yet despite lacking his good stuff, it was ultimately his response to adversity and duress that became the takeaway from the start. He was frustrated for much of the night, yet he remained reasonably poised and ultimately executed the pitches he needed to execute.
For example, after the long ball he responded with a mature approach to the next batter, dropping two straight sliders into the zone to get ahead, pumping a controlled 91 mile-an-hour running fastball on the hands for a foul, and coming right back with a front-door slider for a called strike three. He didn’t get rattled, didn’t try to throw the ball through the catcher in frustration. He dialed back the stuff, went off-speed, and executed.
The maturity was again on display in his fourth and final frame, as he came out in empty-the-tank mode, dialing up his velocity to 94-95 with clear intent to end the inning quickly. When a hit batter and walk extended the frame (and his pitch count) with two outs he again reigned the velocity back in with a runner in scoring position. The threat ultimately ended with his best change-up of the night, a 3-2 dandy at 83 that he pinned to the outside corner for a swinging strikeout.
That he remained comfortable enough to throw the pitch in that situation after struggling with it all night said a lot about his confidence and approach, and his self-control to harness the velocity and stay within his delivery in the face of adversity spoke volumes. It was a pretty remarkable display for any pitcher in High-A, let alone a seventeen year old.
Now, a couple anecdotes from High-A do not a career make. But High-A is also not a level at which you typically see young pitchers respond to adversity with that kind of poise and command of the situation, let alone the confidence to rely on stuff that’s not quite as crisp on a given day. When it’s a kid as young as Urias who shows the ability to respond like that, and he also just happens to possess some of the best pure stuff in the league…well, that’s why he’s cracking top-ten lists already.