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A look at Julio Urías’ uneven start to 2023, as he returns from the injured list

Los Angeles Dodgers v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

Big things were expected from Dodgers ace Julio Urías coming into the season. He was entering a contract year and was coming off of a season with a minuscule 2.16 ERA and a third-place finish in National League Cy Young Award voting. Unfortunately, this season was off to a rough start, with a 4.39 ERA, 5.30 FIP, and 1.157 WHIP across his 10 starts. After being so dominant for so long like Urías has been it does raise the question if this was an anomaly.

With Urías activated on Saturday after missing six weeks with a hamstring strain, let’s take a closer look at his first 10 starts of 2023.

Has he been unlucky?

Maybe a little bit, however, I don’t think I would classify Urías as completely unlucky this season. His xERA is at 4.33 and his BABIP is .264, two numbers that in no way shape or form indicate Urías has been unlucky this season. However, Urías has been burned by homers all year, with a 20.3-percent home-run-to-fly-ball rate, a number like that is entirely unsustainable and has to come down significantly, potentially by more than half. This is highlighted by the fact he has a 5.30 FIP, but only a 4.00 xFIP. For those that don’t know, FIP is fielding independent pitching which means only the outcomes pitchers can control, home runs, walks and strikeouts. When the expected gets added into the equation it's the pitchers walks and strikeouts but then uses the league average home run rate rather than the pitcher's actual rate as homers can be an inconsistent stat. So, effectively, if he was allowing homers at a league average rate, he would be a significantly better pitcher this year.

How were his pitches performing?

This is where things are odd for me as the stuff is the same. Urías’ vertical and horizontal movement has dipped 2.2 and 1.4 inches respectively on his slurve, but that is nothing that should be raising any alarm bells. Then when you go to his four seamer and changeup it is largely the same thing as nothing has moved more than 1.2 inches in either direction.

From a spin rate standpoint, once again there is not anything of true significance. His changeup spin rate is down 140 RPM, which is nothing to scoff at, but it is also not a drop that gives me much pause from player-evaluation perspective. His four-seam RPM is also down this season, but the decrease is less than 100 RPM which in the grand scheme of things is nothing when it comes to spin rates.

Are hitters laying off of his pitches and making more contact?

Short answer, no. When a pitcher is struggling, one way to read the quality of the stuff and see if it is different from years prior is to evaluate stats including their whiff and chase rate. His chase rate has seen a dip of 0.9 percent, but his whiff rate has actually gone up 0.5 percent. Additionally, his chase contact rate is 2.7 percent better than it was last season. So, from an overall standpoint of how hitters are reading his pitches, the general answer is the same as years prior.

So, what was the problem then?

For me, his four-seam fastball is the root cause of his overall performance slipping this year.

Difference between 2022 and 2023 numbers

Four seam stats 2022 2023
Four seam stats 2022 2023
Exit velocity 88.3 MPH 91.9 MPH
xBA 0.206 0.303
xwOBA 0.284 0.385
Chase rate 30.1 percent 19.5 percent
Hard hit rate 38 percent 45.2 percent

As the chart above shows, it went from a dominant pitch for him in 2022 to a well below-average offering in 2023 that is getting hit hard constantly. Why he’s had these struggles with his four-seamer all of a sudden, I don’t have an answer for. The spin rate, movement and in-zone percentages are all there. It is possible that maybe the introduction of his cutter has taken away some of the effectiveness of his four seam, but that is purely me thinking out loud and if anything, a cutter would likely take away from the slider in my opinion.

So, will he return to his 2022 form?

That is dependent on his four-seam performing like it did in previous seasons and his home run to fly ball rate not being sky high. If those two things happen, it is difficult to envision him not being the pitcher he was in years prior. If his home run rate drops but his four-seamer continues to struggle, I think Urías will close the season as a pitcher with an ERA around 3.85.