Checking in on Luis Urias

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Part two of the two-part Twitter mailbag incoming in five . . . four . . . three . . . ahh, what the heck, here it is:

@jefftsdHow about a compare and contrast of Urias’ 2018 YTD numbers vs. his 2017 numbers? Is his 2018 so far a step backwards, normal growing pains, or do you think his numbers are OK? Just an idea, I don’t remember you recently covering the topic.

Good topic. Just to get the particulars out of the way, Luis Urias is 21 years old and currently playing (mostly) second base at Triple-A El Paso. Through 321 plate appearances, he’s slashing .268/.377/.408 with a 112 wRC+.

The place to start with Urias is the strikeouts, I think. After walking more than he whiffed in every season going into this one, Triple-A pitching has caught up to Urias. He has 64 strikeouts to 43 walks after striking out just 65 times all of last season. The walks aren’t a problem—Urias is actually walking at a career-high 13.4 percent clip, an impressive number given the age and level.

The early concern is that strikeout rate, which has ballooned this season. Going into this year, Urias had an 8.8 percent K rate in his professional career, the stuff of a bat-to-ball legend. This year? It’s at 19.9 percent. As mentioned, Urias is just 21 and at Triple-A, so an increase in whiffs was expected. But even last year, as a 20-year-old at Double-A (and in a tougher hitter’s environment), Urias only K’ed in 12.4 percent of his PAs. It’s not like he needed a bunch of time to adjust to Double-A last season, either; through the first three months of 2017, his K rate was lower than his seasonal mark, at 11.5 percent.

Urias’ next home run will give him a career high, but it’s not like he’s completely selling out for power. Yes, his .140 ISO is 40 points higher than his career figure, but a good part of that jump is owed to the Pacific Coast League alone, where the average ISO this season is .155. Last year in the Texas League, where Urias played all season, that league number stood at just .126. Credit roughly 30 points to the league environment and suddenly Urias power numbers look on par with his career.

weird splits interlude

Beyond the strikeouts, Urias does have a couple of weird splits, but I’m not sure they mean much. As Craig Elsten and John Gennaro discussed on the Make the Padres Great Again podcast earlier this week, Urias is OPS’ing .851 on the road compared to a paltry .716 at home. Like Craig mentioned, however, if anything it’s a good sign that he’s hitting better on the road than vice versa; that means he’s not taking advantage of a favorable home park while struggling in more neutral road venues. For what it’s worth, Urias has hit better on the road going on three seasons now, but there’s not enough of a difference in the peripherals to make me think there’s much to it.

Further, as John Conniff of MadFriars has pointed out, Urias is crushing the ball in the day time.

Time PAs OPS ISO
Day 73 1.185 .328
Night 242 .663 .082

That’s a big difference and it’s easy to surmise that Urias has gotten more carry when he’s made good contact in the sunlight. Still, it’s a small sample, and for most of his career he’s hit better under the lights. Like the home/road splits, I’m not sure there’s much here, but it’s at least worth keeping an eye on.

Back to the strikeouts

Forgetting the splits, the strikeouts are a bit concerning. They’re at least evidence that Urias isn’t quite some world-beating freak. Like most hitters these days, he’s susceptible to swinging through good pitches. On the other hand, it’s only 300 plate appearances and change, and it doesn’t mean Urias is suddenly a strikeout magnet.

Consider the minor-league strikeout rates by level of two comparable hitters, Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor (they rank no. 2 and 3 on Urias’ PECOTA comp list, so I’m not just plucking them out of thin air).

Player Low-A Single-A High-A Double-A Triple-A
Betts 10.3 11.8 8.1 7.8 14.2
Lindor NA 13.8 10.5 14.2 16.6

Both guys struck out quite a bit more frequently at the higher levels, although neither were quite as extreme as the current version of Urias. Still, both Betts and Lindor have posted lower K rates in the majors—Betts is at 11.9 percent and Lindor is at 14.2 percent—than they did at Triple-A. Both guys also turned that trick while adding power.

Like Jose Altuve, I don’t think Betts is a realistic Urias comp—it’s just too pie-in-the-sky, and Betts hit for more power in the minors than Urias ever has. But there might be something to a Lindor comp. While Lindor was a year younger than Urias through the minors, the numbers are quite similar.

Player Slash Line BB% K% ISO
Lindor .278/.354/.384 9.9 14.0 .106
Urias .303/.391/.394 10.6 10.8 .091

Lindor moved to the majors at age-21 and actually turned into a better hitter immediately, adding power while keeping the strikeout rate around 14 or 15 percent over his first two seasons. He’s ramped the power up to another level over the last two seasons, focusing on lifting the ball more, and I’m not sure even a jumpy baseball can turn Urias into a consistent .200-plus ISO guy. But Lindor from 2015 and 2016, when he recorded a 117 wRC+ on the back of a contact-based game with Cleveland, seems like a realistic and positive outcome for Urias. In those years, Lindor had a good strikeout rate and an excellent batting average, a solid walk rate, and enough power to make him dangerous.

To finally answer your question, it’s mostly growing pains, I think. Perhaps Urias is selling out for more power this season, and everything just hasn’t come together yet. Maybe he’s just in a rut. Maybe he’s doing something close to what we should expect given the age and level.

Once he gets hot, I’d still expect a call-up later this summer. With better defense at second base than once projected—and the versatility to switch to the left side on occasion—Urias remains one of the best prospects in the Padres system. Even if he struggles some early in his big-league career, he should figure it out in time and become an important part of the near future for the Padres.

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