There's no guarantee that one of the most talented young pitchers in recent memory eventually becomes the ace he's meant to be.
But nobody should give up on Julio Urias.
It's understandable that Urias—formerly the No. 1 left-handed pitching prospect in Major League Baseball for Baseball America, MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus and still just 21 years old—is an afterthought in the Los Angeles Dodgers' outlook for 2018.
He underwent surgery to repair the anterior capsule in his left shoulder last June 23. The prognosis was that he would need 12 to 14 months to recover. Only seven months and change have passed.
The bright side, such as it is, is that Urias' comeback trail has been colored by optimism.
According to Pedro Moura of the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Neal ElAttrache's post-operation report on Urias' shoulder concluded that "everything was better than expected." All the more reason for Urias himself to put on a brave face.
"I'm not scared," the Mexico native told Moura. "I'm thinking positively, 100 percent. I'm thinking about coming back and thinking I may be even better if I put in the work. I'm not worried about being the same player, coming back the same way. I'm just being positive and getting my work in."
Of course, the ol' grain-of-salt caveat applies to all this.
If a pitcher is going to have a major part break down, better his elbow than his shoulder. Elbows are relatively straightforward. Shoulders are complex machines with all sorts of nuts, bolts, cables and hinges. A 2015 study from FiveThirtyEight's Rob Arthur confirms they don't heal as well: Whereas 80 percent of pitchers return from Tommy John surgery, only 67 percent return from shoulder surgeries.
Assuming Urias does return, there will still be a question of whether he's the same pitcher who once turned prospect hounds into so many heart-eyed emojis. The possibility that he might not be means there are two ways he could succumb to a fate as a "what if?" story.
But while these dark timelines must be acknowledged, they don't have to be treated as fait accompli.
If nothing else, young pitchers are easier to trust than older pitchers when it comes to recovering from major operations. This is especially true for Urias, whose shoulder wasn't wrecked by use and abuse.
"It was an acute injury, which means it happened on a pitch," Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers president of baseball operations, said last June, per the Associated Press. "So the fact that it's not wear and tear that happened over years makes the prognosis that much better."
Indeed, the Dodgers adopted a notoriously cautious approach in preparing Urias for The Show.
He made just 56 starts and pitched 222.1 innings between 2013, when he debuted as a mere 16-year-old, and 2015. In 2016, the Dodgers only slid their kid gloves off far enough to allow Urias to pitch 122 innings between Triple-A and the majors.
By the time that season came to a close, it was hard to be anything short of ecstatic about what they had developed.
Urias arrived in the majors with a sparkling 2.66 ERA and 230 more strikeouts (313) than walks (83) in his 267.1 minor league innings. Despite being just 19 years old, he responded to his first taste of the majors with a 3.39 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 77 innings.
Anyone who so much as glanced at Urias could see a dude who plain looked like a pitcher. Every pitch was thrown out of a smooth, fluid delivery. And he didn't have just one or two good pitches. He had four: fastball, slider, curveball and changeup.
His heater sat at 92.6 mph and played even faster due to its elite spin rate of 2,432 revolutions per minute and his preference for spotting it above the belt. As demonstrated by the Colorado Rockies here, hitters could neither lay off it nor hit it:
Ultimately, batters swung and missed on 23.7 percent of the hacks that they took at Urias' fastball in 2016. That was better than such lefty luminaries as Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale, Robbie Ray and a certain highly decorated Dodgers teammate: Clayton Kershaw.
The latter two pitches were also extreme departures from his fastball in terms of velocity, as compared to the league averages for that year:
|FB/CH MPH Difference||FB/CB MPH Difference|
Data courtesy of FanGraphs.
Put it this way: In Urias' first taste of major league action, he flashed an explosive fastball and an array of secondaries that was liable to befuddle hitters with movement or with speed differential.
Hitters made contact on only 77 percent of their swings against Urias, below the MLB average of 78.2 percent. They averaged 85.7 mph in exit velocity when they did make contact, once again below the MLB average of 87.7 mph. And after allowing three home runs in his second appearance, he allowed just two over his next 16.
The fact that Urias walked 31 batters in his 77 regular-season innings and then four more in 5.2 postseason innings is solid evidence that he wasn't yet a complete pitcher. He ran into further trouble in the majors early in 2017. In five starts, he put up a 5.40 ERA and walked more batters (14) than he struck out (11).
Nonetheless, the potential that Urias teased in 2016 can't be understated.
Since Major League Baseball lowered the mound in 1969, only seven pitchers have logged as many as 70 major league innings in their age-19 seasons. Per era-adjusted fielding independent pitching (which is based on strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed), Urias' debut season put him among the better performers on that list:
- Dwight Gooden, 1984: 49 FIP
- Felix Hernandez, 2005: 67 FIP-
- Julio Urias, 2016: 78 FIP-
- Bert Blyleven, 1970: 79 FIP-
To recap, that's a Hall of Famer, two Cy Young Award winners and Urias.
In the wake of his shoulder surgery, there are so many things Urias needs to prove before he can be deemed back on track. His shoulder is healed, but is it strong? Even if it is, will he be able to throw like he used to? If not, will his pitches still move like they used to?
Until "no" is the answer to these questions, it's worth holding out hope for yesses across the board. That would mean the addition of a big weapon for the Dodgers' postseason push and the return of a rising star for Major League Baseball.