Julio Urias Cements Place As Top Pitching Prospect Made Good With ERA Title
LOS ANGELES—From the time Julio Urias was old enough to drive, he has shouldered the burden of colossal expectations.
Urias was 16 years old when he broke out as a prospect, mowing down hitters in the Low-A Midwest League at the same age as a high school sophomore. By 17, he was heralded as a future ace and the next in line of great Dodgers lefthanders after Sandy Koufax, Fernando Valenzuela and Clayton Kershaw. By 19, he was starting in the Dodgers rotation.
For many, it was merely a question of when, not if, Urias would become one of the best pitchers in baseball.
After a long journey full of detours and setbacks, that time has arrived.
Urias wrapped up the 2022 National League ERA title with his final start of the season on Tuesday. The 26-year-old lefthander finished the year 17-7, 2.16, beating out Marlins righthander Sandy Alcantara (2.28) for the ERA crown.
The ERA title marks a crowning achievement in a three-season run of excellence for Urias. He was a Dodgers postseason hero in 2020 and closed out the clinching game of the World Series. He won a National League-high 20 games in 2021. And now, in 2022, he is an ERA champion.
“It's incredible,” Urias said through an interpreter. “You always have goals at the beginning of the season. To get to those goals and reach those goals is something that you want to do as a competitor, as a pitcher."
Urias has joined Dodgers royalty with his recent run. Last year, he joined Kershaw as the only Dodgers pitchers to win 20 games in the last 30 years. This season, he became just the fourth Dodgers lefthander to win an ERA title, joining Koufax, Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu.
It's a resume befitting that of a frontline starter, and a top pitching prospect made good.
“He's lived up to everything that we had hoped for and more,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He was obviously a highly touted prospect and for him to realize all those expectations, he's done that and more. And there's more in there. So yeah, we definitely appreciate him here.”
As is often the case with top pitching prospects, the road to this point was far from smooth. For a time, it appeared Urias would be one of the many top pitching prospects whose promise went unfulfilled.
Despite the Dodgers carefully monitoring his workload throughout his teenage years, Urias needed major shoulder surgery that cost him most of the 2017-18 seasons. He spent most of 2019 pitching in relief and was arrested on suspicion of domestic battery in May of that season. Prosecutors declined to file charges, but he was suspended 20 games by Major League Baseball and required to attend a yearlong domestic violence counseling program.
When the pandemic-delayed 2020 season began, Urias had made just 14 starts in four seasons and had both a major surgery and a domestic violence suspension on his record.
With his career at a crossroads, he finally began moving in the right direction.
Urias went 3-0, 3.27 in 11 appearances in 2020 and blossomed in the postseason, going 4-0, 1.17 while stepping up in the biggest moments. He pitched three perfect innings to close out Game 7 of the NLCS and send the Dodgers to the World Series. Three days after striking out nine batters in his first World Series start, Urias entered Game 6 in relief and pitched 2.1 perfect innings to close out the Dodgers first World Series championship since 1988.
Since that 2020 season, Urias been the ace long predicted. He is 40-10 with a 2.66 ERA the last three seasons, as well as 5-1, 2.84 in the postseason.
“He's pitched in a lot of the games at kind of a pretty young age and been put in a lot of tough spots and is pretty battle tested,” Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes said. “He's got a lot of confidence. Now he's just making his pitches a lot and trusts his stuff.”
The full force of Urias’ arsenal has been on display this season. He’s held batters to a .199 opponent average, third lowest in the National League. All three of his primary pitches—fastball, curveball and changeup—have generated whiff rates above 20%, according to Baseball Savant. And most of all, he was consistent: Urias held opponents to two runs or less in 26 of his 31 starts this season.
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“Gosh, I mean, he’s grown exponentially,” Roberts said. “I think his discipline and his in-between starts (routine) has been much more fine-tuned. I think like most young players they get through on talent, but I think the consistency of the weight room, all that stuff that he does to prepare for a start, has been way more consistent.
“And I think that his scope in how he manages a game has broadened. As opposed to just kind of getting that hitter, making your pitch, (it’s) understanding how the lineup is constructed, how are you going to navigate second and third time through. That’s kind of gotten better. But I think experience just trumps everything. He's just gained a lot more experience.”
Barnes in particular has a special appreciation for just how far Urias has come. Barnes caught Urias when they were minor leaguers at Triple-A Oklahoma City and has been with Urias in the majors every year since he came up.
Working behind the plate on the night Urias cemented the ERA title, Barnes reflected on just how much Urias had grown since he was a teenage prodigy in the minor leagues.
“Just his evolution of his like, all his pitches, you know?” Barnes said. “His breaking ball and his changeup have really become crazy weapons and he uses them at all different times. Just the evolution of his pitches I think really helped him.
“His demeanor out there, the way he competes, I love catching him. We have a lot of great people on this staff and he's up there with everybody.”
Nine years after his breakout in the Midwest League, Urias has a World Series ring, a 20-win season and now an ERA title. The path wasn’t smooth, but in the end, he’s been the rare pitching prodigy to live up to the enormous expectations held for him.
“Year to year you set goals for yourself and set things you want to do,” Urias said. “Obviously doing it from the ages that I did it and the opportunity that I had the last couple years has been a blessing.
“It goes without saying there's so many people along the way that help you. A lot of trainers, coaches, managers, teammates. There's so many pieces that you have to give credit to for everything that's happened for me, especially the last two seasons.”