Julio Urías Shows Up in the PlayoffsTony Wolfeon October 29, 2020 at 6:35 pm

When recording a segment with Ben Clemens for FanGraphs Audio last week, our Dodgers conversation naturally delved into their at-times off-kilter pitching usage, particularly in regards to rookies Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin. After following a mostly straightforward (for 2020, that is) pitching arrangement — both spending the year in the starting rotation — the two were shoved into very different roles in the postseason. May was asked to start, follow, take over the middle innings, or anything else the Dodgers needed of him. Gonsolin, meanwhile, was suddenly less a starter than an opener, and never quite got settled into a typical rest schedule. The result of this constantly evolving usage were postseason performances filled with several unpleasant memories for both young pitchers.

We did not talk about Julio Urías during this part of our conversation, even though Urías is younger than Gonsolin, just a year older than May, and had seen his role tinkered with just as much during the postseason. He didn’t come up because we were talking mostly about the pitchers on the Dodgers’ staff who had been struggling, and Urías had been great. He was great when he started, he was great when he was asked to throw in the middle of games, and he was great on Tuesday, when he closed Game 6 of the World Series by retiring all seven batters he faced and striking out four to clinch the Dodgers’ first championship in 32 years.

Urías’ 2.1-inning save in Game 6 came just three days after he started and threw 80 pitches in Game 4, during which he allowed two runs in 4.2 innings with four hits, a walk, and nine strikeouts. His role was similarly fluid prior to the World Series. In the NLCS, he made a five-inning start with one run allowed in Game 3, then closed out the final three innings of a one-run victory in Game 7. In Game 3 of the NLDS, he entered the game in the second and pitched for five innings, and in Game 1 of the Wild Card series, he entered in the fifth and pitched for three.

The six appearances Urías made during this postseason bring his career playoff total to 18, an impressive number given he just turned 24 years old in August. In fact, according to Sportsnet Stats and Information, Urías is just the fifth pitcher in baseball history to make at least 18 playoff appearances before turning 25, with just two others surpassing him. What’s most unique about Urías, however, isn’t just the raw total of postseason appearances he’s made — it’s the fact that he’s racked those appearances up while making a fraction of the regular season appearances his peers have.

Most Playoff Games Before Age-25
Pitcher RS Games Playoff Games Total Playoff% of Total
Roberto Osuna 310 27 337 8.0%
Trevor Rosenthal 165 21 186 11.3%
Francisco Rodriguez 268 18 284 6.3%
Neftalí Feliz 162 18 180 10.0%
Julio Urías 74 18 92 19.6%

Essentially, one out of every five major league games Urías has ever pitched in have been playoff games, which is bananas. The rest of these guys are closers who were throwing 60 or 70 games for their teams in the regular season, then were naturally leaned on just as hard when their squads made the playoffs. But Urías is not a closer. He’s a starter, except for when he was a reliever in 2019, or when he hardly pitched at all in 2017-18. Regardless of his role though, the Dodgers usually find a way to position him prominently in their postseason pitching plans.

Let’s think about this another way. The Dodgers have played 660 regular season games since Urías debuted for them on May 27, 2016. Urías has pitched in 11.2% of them. In that same span, the Dodgers have played in 64 postseason games — Urías has appeared in 28.1% of those. The title of this article isn’t meant to be some clichéd claim about how clutch he is when the season’s on the line or anything like that. It’s meant to be taken literally; If you’ve wanted to watch Urías pitch over the last five years, your best bet is turn on a playoff game.

To be clear, this part of the story is about a statistical oddity rather than anything special Urías has done or some odd strategy the Dodgers have decided to deploy with him. Urías has thrown this many playoff games before turning 25 because he debuted when he was just 19, and he happens to play for one of the most successful teams of any generation. There are several factors that have prevented Urías from better establishing himself on the Dodgers’ pitching staff in recent seasons, some of which are the sole responsibility of Urías himself. His regular season game log would make up a much larger portion of his career resumé had he not lost the second half of 2017 and the first half of 2018 to shoulder surgery, or served a 20 game suspension in 2019 after he was arrested on suspicion of domestic battery.

Because such a large share of Urías’ appearances have come in the postseason, however, his playoff stats can tell us much more about who he is than is typical for a player who just wrapped up his fifth big-league season. Ordinarily, a particularly great playoff resumé might look good on a Hall of Fame plaque, but besides that, we largely discount a player’s numbers in the postseason. If a team were trying to acquire Yandy Díaz, for example, his .280/.364/.418 career batting line in 201 regular season games is going to be much more useful than his .212/.349/.385 line in 18 career playoff games. In the case of Urías, however, removing his playoff stats from the equation means cutting out a fifth of all appearances he’s made in the majors. For a player who was once considered one of the sport’s elite prospects, that’s a significant portion of data.

The good news for Urías is that his playoff numbers — not unlike his performance in the regular season, mind you — have been rather excellent. Baseball Savant hasn’t updated its search function with Game 6’s numbers, but even before recording his perfect seven-out save, Urías already had the lowest postseason batting average allowed and wOBA allowed of anyone who threw at least 150 pitches this October, was second in xwOBA, and ranked third in slugging allowed.

Top 10 Pitchers in 2020 Playoffs by wOBA
Pitcher PA BA SLG wOBA xwOBA
Julio Urías 77 .151 .288 .206 .262
Ian Anderson 77 .164 .194 .223 .280
Framber Valdez 90 .175 .313 .255 .272
Clayton Kershaw 114 .211 .367 .258 .217
Walker Buehler 104 .196 .293 .261 .312
Gerrit Cole 73 .188 .391 .261 .262
Charlie Morton 86 .234 .312 .267 .262
Cristian Javier 38 .156 .313 .271 .279
Blake Treinen 44 .214 .405 .273 .299
Diego Castillo 46 .189 .243 .274 .295
Through Game 5 of World Series

Urías — acting not as a starter, closer, or swingman, but all of those things rolled into one — may have been the best pitcher in the postseason this year. He’s been quite good in other postseasons, too. In 38.2 career playoff innings, Urías owns a 2.79 ERA and 3.54 FIP. He’s done that while being moved in and out of the rotation and up and down in the bullpen pecking order, just as he has been in the regular season over the past five years.

If you had told the Dodgers after Urías’ rookie season as a teenager in 2016 that the young lefty would throw just 162 regular season innings over the next four years combined, they would assume things had gone seriously wrong. And indeed, much has. Yet somehow, Urías managed to play a key role in his team finally winning a title, and he still appears to have a lot of success ahead of him, health permitting. We are five seasons into his career and it still seems we’ve seen so little of him, but when glancing at the Dodgers’ future, his presence looms large.
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