Even Clayton Kershaw didn’t receive the hype Julio Urias has gotten over the last year or so as the next great Dodgers’ pitching prospect.
So is the kid that good? The Mets will get the first crack at finding out, when the 19-year old lefty makes his major-league debut on Friday night at Citi Field.
The hype seems deserved at the moment. Urias is pitching to a 1.10 ERA in the Pacific Coast League, where Terry Collins managed for 15 years and said the rule was always to subtract at least a run from the ERA in evaluating pitchers, due to the hitter-friendly conditions.
In that case he barely has an ERA, and even the 1.10 may not do him justice, considering Urias had a 27-inning scoreless streak going for Oklahoma City when the Dodgers announced his call-up on Thursday.
What makes him so highly-touted?
Wally Backman, whose Triple-A Las Vegas team lost 1-0 to Urias two weeks ago, likens him to Steven Matz, the Mets’ lefty who has dominated hitters this season, only with a better change-up.
Yikes. That’s high praise, but obviously there’s a reason he has zoomed through the Dodgers’ system since signing out of Mexico at age 16.
“We heard a lot about him and he lived up to it when he pitched against us,’’ Backman said by phone on Thursday. “I would compare him to Matz because he doesn’t just blow guys away with his fastball like a Noah Syndergaard, but he has above-average velocity, 93 to 95, maybe 96 once in a while, and he locates with it and gets strikeouts with it because he changes speeds so well with his other pitches.
“His change-up is really good, and he’s got a great pickoff move to first too. I told our guys how good his move was and we still had two guys picked off.”
A scout from an American League team who has seen three of Urias’ starts echoed Backman’s comments, saying he was most impressed with the lefthander’s command at such a young age.
“He’s as polished as a pitcher can be at 19,” the scout said. “He works both sides of the plate with his fastball, he back-foots righthanded hitters with his slider, and when he misses with his change-up, he misses down and away to righties, where they can’t hit it.
“About the only question I have about him is whether he’s really 19, because he pitches like a guy who’s been around for years. Maybe it will be different pitching to big-league hitters, but I’ve never seen him get rattled.’’
All in all, Urias has proven to be quite a find for the Dodgers, and a bit of a fortunate one as well, for their scouts saw him pitching in a tournament in Mexico at age 15, only because they were there to take a look at Yasiel Puig.
The Dodgers had to wait for him to turn 16, then signed Urias for $450,000, which looks like quite a bargain at the moment.
As he’s zoomed through the minor leagues, the hype has built, especially when it was reported that the Dodgers wouldn’t give up Urias for David Price at the trade deadline last summer. At the time, fans and media felt that adding the star lefthander to a rotation with Kershaw and Zack Greinke might have ended the Dodgers’ then-27 year championship drought.
And who knows, perhaps with Price the Dodgers wouldn’t have lost to the Mets in the NLDS last October.
In any case, Urias, who turns 20 in August, will be the youngest pitcher to debut in the big leagues since Felix Hernandez at 19 in 2005. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, there have been the obvious comparisons to Fernando Valenzuela, a fellow Mexican who made his Dodger debut at age 19 in 1980 and became to L.A. what Doc Gooden was to the Mets a few years later.
For now, though, it could be a short stay for Urias, as he fills in for the injured Alex Wood.
As rapidly as Urias has moved through the minor-league system, the Dodgers have limited him with strict pitch counts. This season he hasn’t thrown more than 82 pitches in any of his starts for Oklahoma City, and since he only threw a total of 80 innings in the minors last season, the Dodgers are expected to limit him to between 110 and 120 innings this season.
So there is speculation in Los Angeles he could be returned to the minors after the start against the Mets, and used more as a reliever than a starter for the Dodgers later this season.
One way or another, though, Urias’ career is expected to be memorable. Mets’ hitters will dictate whether his debut gets him started in that direction.