We finally got the answer to what would happen if the Dodgers finally unhooked the clamps on Julio Urías. Free of restriction, the left-hander flourished as an everyday member of the starting rotation, one of the best pitchers in the league. If he would have stayed a starter in October, perhaps 2021 would have had a different ending.
Urías still resides in the sweet spot of being quite young and incredibly experienced, which is to be expected from someone who held his own at age 16 in Class-A. Now just 25, Urías is the fifth-youngest player on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster, and now that Kenley Jansen, Clayton Kershaw, and Corey Seager are free agents, Urías also has the second-longest tenure in the organization.
Being so good while so young made Urías a unicorn in terms of development. There was no real playbook for how to proceed, and the Dodgers chose a path of caution, limiting his innings whenever possible. Shoulder surgery wiped out most of his 2017-18 seasons, and made for a reset of sorts on his innings odometer. Urías was finally able to get an extended run at starting in 2020, but that was a truncated season.
This year gave us a full year with the kid gloves off, with incredible results.
In a year marked by incredible turnover, Urías was a tentpole of consistency in the Dodgers rotation. Prior to 2021, Urías started 38 times in his career, lasting five or more innings 21 times and pitching six or more innings nine times, never longer than 6⅓ innings. But this year, he started 32 times, lasting five innings 31 times. He pitched at least six innings 15 times, and pitched seven innings seven times, something he never did before 2021.
Increased command of his curveball and changeup gave Urías an effective three-pitch repertoire along with his fastball, and the secret to his success had a lot to do with throwing more strikes. No pitcher in baseball threw a higher percentage of strikes than Urías, both on the first pitch (70.7 percent) and overall (69.8 percent).
Urías had the highest strikeout rate of his career (26.2 percent), three ticks above his career rate through 2020. He also dramatically reduced his walk rate, from nine percent career to just 5.1 percent this year, the latter the second-lowest in MLB.
Pitching deep into games, allowing three or fewer runs 26 times in 32 starts, and receiving the sixth-highest run support in MLB (6.2 runs per start) was the perfect receipt for Urías to join Clayton Kershaw as the only Dodgers to win 20 games in a season in the last 30 years.
Urías was 13-2 with a 2.71 ERA in 18 road starts, the most wins away from home by a Dodgers pitcher since Claude Osteen (14-3) in 1972.
Urías helped himself on the run support front with his nine runs batted in, tied for the most RBI as a pitcher in 2021. That included five straight starts with at least one RBI from May 23 to June 15, the longest streak by a pitcher since Carlos Zambrano in 2008.
Julio Urías innings, annually
As was the case for mostly the final two months of the regular season, the Dodgers had essentially only three starting pitchers heading into October — Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler, and Urías. All three were used aggressively by Dave Roberts in the postseason, with Buehler starting on short rest twice, and both Scherzer and Urías used in relief in between starts.
It’s easy to see the temptation of using Urías in such a way, especially considering how dominant he was in a hybrid role during the 2020 postseason, starting games and also closing out the final two series in relief. But the Dodgers’ bullpen last season wasn’t as dominant nor deep as the 2021 version, so Roberts had plenty of other options in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS with a two-run lead.
He picked Urías, on two days rest after his NLDS Game 5 bulk appearances (the first non-start for Urías in 2021), knowing it would set up Urías with only two days rest before his scheduled start in NLCS Game 4. Neither went well, with Urías coughing up the lead in Atlanta in Game 2, followed by ineffectiveness in Game 4 in Los Angeles, allowing five runs then being asked to eat a few more innings to save the bullpen that needed to cover for a decimated rotation.
I’m not sure if it was the relief appearance in Game 2 that was the cause of his downturn, or if it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back after a season that saw Urías pitch a combined 200⅔ innings, 73 more than his previous career high, and more innings than in his previous three years combined.
But in a year that Urías proved to be more than effective in a starter’s role, and backed by the best bullpen of Roberts’ Dodgers tenure, it would have been nice to see what might have happened if Urías was simply allowed to continue to make starts. That formula sure seemed to work.
Stats: 20-3, 2.96 ERA, 3.13 FIP, 1.018 WHIP, 195 K, 185⅔ innings, 4.4 bWAR, 5.0 fWAR
Salary: $3.6 million
Game of the year
A couple of April gems from Urías stood out, but his April 4 start stood out because it came at the hitters’ haven of Coors Field. Urías not only pitched seven innings for the first time in his professional career, but also pitched into the eighth inning. He kept the Rockies scoreless until the runner he left on base (Ryan McMahon, on an infield single) reached home after Urías left.
Urías settled for six strikeouts and only three hits allowed, setting the tone in his first start of the season. The changeup in particular was working for him in this start, throwing the pitch 24 times and ending six strikeouts with the pitch, matching his total for all of 2020.
“His changeup was filthy today, that’s the best I’ve ever seen his changeup,” catcher Will Smith said.
With four years, 117 days of major league service time, Urías is eligible for salary arbitration for a third time (he was a Super Two in the 2019-20 offseason). Urías made $3.6 million in 2021, and MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration projections have him making $8.8 million in 2022.