Much has been mentioned in recent years about pitch counts, innings limits, and how to protect a young pitcher’s arm from damage or fatigue. This has very much been the case with the Dodgers’ Julio Urias who is entering his sophomore season with the Dodgers after a bevy of pitching injuries might have placed him in the ranks of the majors faster than the front office was really comfortable with. The 20 year old pitcher from Mexico threw 127.2 innings last season between AAA, the major leagues, and the Postseason which was a 60+ inning increase from any year prior in his career. The Dodger organization obviously wants to continue to increase the workload for Urias to improve his stamina as a starter and still have him be effective and available when (or if) the Dodgers again make the playoffs in 2017.
The young phenom starter in baseball is nothing new and neither is slowly increasing pitch counts and innings pitched limits. This is usually more stressed when a young pitcher has undergone Tommy John Surgery and Urias is lucky to have avoided that as he’s progressed through the minor leagues. Dave Roberts has admitted there is an innings limit on Urias but there has been no magic number yet revealed. Looking at past pitchers and their introduction into the majors might give us an idea of how much they’re going to have Urias pitch in 2017 and we can look to someone the Dodgers have already had experience with in Clayton Kershaw.
Clayton Kershaw made his major league debut back in 2008 as a barely 20 year old lefty starter, much like Urias is now. Unlike Urias, Kershaw did not spend very much time in the minor league system only spending a full year once in 2007 where he threw 122 innings between single and double A (very similar to the workload Urias had last year however Urias had been in the Dodgers’ minor leagues for nearly 4 years). In 2008, Kershaw spent the beginning of the season in double A before his debut on May 25th, 2008 where he joined the starting rotation and ended that year throwing 171 IP between the minors, majors, and Postseason. The Kershaw comps between Urias are fairly plentiful and this path to keeping him fresh for the Postseason is most likely exactly what the Dodgers are aiming to do. It should be noted that Kershaw that year was just used for 2 innings in the Postseason as a reliever and since Urias has already started in the Postseason that most likely won’t be the case with him.
Projections for Urias’ innings limit are also pretty varied according to various projection systems. Fangraphs’ ZiPS projects 137 innings pitched while their other projection system, Steamer, only projects 96 innings pitched. Their ERA and FIP project to about the same among the two but that’s quite a difference in workload for not only Urias himself but for value Urias is providing to the team. Considering that Urias has pitched fairly close to 137 last year, I’d expect to see him get above that number in 2017 as they test and improve his stamina. He might not reach the 171 innings pitched that Clayton Kershaw reached in his sophomore year but if the front line starter projections pan out for Urias like many expect, it could certainly be his ceiling for 2017.
The protection to the arm for the Postseason makes sense for insurance purposes but when it comes to morale it can take a negative toll. The World Baseball Classic is currently underway and for now the Dodgers are not allowing Julio Urias to play for his home team, Team Mexico…at least for the first round. If Team Mexico is to advance it isn’t yet certain if the Dodgers will allow Urias to pitch but no firm decision has been made. In response, Urias stated through an interpreter, “I can’t lie to you. I do feel a little sad. I do feel as if I wish I could have gone. It’s the decision of the team and I have to respect it, at least for the first round, and then see what they decide for the second round.” Team Mexico plays their first game March 9th and should they advance, more is sure to come in regards to Julio Urias’ participation in the WBC whether it be good news for him or not. Regardless, Urias has shown maturity since his debut and if Dave Roberts removing Rich Hill from his perfect game bid last year didn’t prepare Urias for what the team might resort to for protecting arms for the Postseason, surely nothing will.