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Pulling back the curtain on the Astros’ prime breakout candidate

Despite an uneven 2020, one Astros starter looks poised to break out in 2021.

League Championship - Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros - Game Three Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Astros’ rotation was one of 2020’s pleasant surprises for the club. After ace Justin Verlander suffered a season-ending injury following his first start, expectations plummeted. But as the season progressed, it became clear that the Astros’ starting pitching was still a strength.

José Urquidy was one reason why. After missing the first several weeks of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 complications, Urquidy returned to the club in early September and made 5 regular season starts, amassing nearly 30 innings and finishing with a 2.73 ERA.

Urquidy would then appear 4 times in the playoffs — 3 of them starts — and posted a serviceable 4.02 ERA in those 15.2 innings.

It’s not hard to tell that the peripherals did not match Urquidy’s seemingly solid performance. Combining those 45 innings, Urquidy’s FIP was well above his ERA, and for good reason. He didn’t collect many strikeouts, he seldom missed bats and he generally got hit hard.

And yet, Urquidy’s development in 2020 could be hugely significant, as his pitch quality saw stark improvement. Moreover, his control and command both remained above-average. Though Urquidy’s results were mediocre, it’s this potent mixture of quality stuff and command that has him on the brink of breakthrough.

An enhanced arsenal

Something drastic happened to Urquidy’s repertoire last year. Data from both Brooks Baseball and Baseball Savant showed that the drop on Urquidy’s curveball and the horizontal movement on his slider increased substantially. Additionally, Urquidy’s 4-seam fastball also experienced an upswing in vertical movement.

While the fastball’s velocity was identical to 2019’s, Urquidy did throw his two breaking balls somewhat slower in 2020. This can affect movement, but in Urquidy’s case, multiple adjustments are likely the cause for the overall upsurge in movement.

One explanation is Urquidy’s active spin rates. Urquidy’s raw spin rates were actually slightly lower in 2020, but his curveball’s active spin rate increased vastly from 70% in 2019 to 85% in 2020, and his fastball’s went up from 94% to 99%.

As for the slider, its active spin rate also improved from 45% to 49%, though it’s worth noting that sliders are extremely strange in the sense that they don’t necessarily need a lot of raw spin and/or active spin to be an effective pitch.

Mechanical tweaks

A clear adjustment that Urquidy made in 2020 was altering his release point.

2019 release point
2020 release point

Urquidy’s delivery might not have changed much from 2019 to 2020, but it’s apparent that he tightened up his arm action, and subsequently, his release point. The alteration in his slider (yellow dots) stands out, which could be another factor in regard to the pitch’s increased movement.

A notable tidbit that derives from Urquidy’s mechanical adjustments is his extension. In 2019, it was 5.64 feet, and in 2020, it was 5.95. A .31 difference may seem insignificant, but it’s not.

(Fun fact: New Astros reliever Steve Cishek gets the most extension in the league; Tampa Bay’s towering starter Tyler Glasnow ranks second.)

Another relevant (and brand new to the public) facet of pitching that Urquidy seemed to refine via his compacted release point was spin mirroring.

Urquidy’s 4-seamer (red) and curveball (light blue) mirror each other perfectly. That’s a good thing, as each pitch looks similar out of Urquidy’s hand before moving in completely opposite directions. Here’s what that looks like, via The Athletic’s Eno Sarris and the MLB “Pitching Ninja” Rob Friedman.

Aside from the 4-seamer and curveball combination, Urquidy’s slider (yellow) occasionally intersects with his curveball (light blue). This is also good because out of his hand, Urquidy’s curveball and slider can appear to look somewhat similar, but due to a marked difference in movement, each pitch has a much different shape as it travels toward the plate.

This image shows how the slider (yellow) and curveball (light blue) arrive at the plate going in distinctly different directions.

So, not only can Urquidy’s 4-seamer and curveball be difficult to tell apart out of his hand, but his slider and curveball can be as well when they’re aligned. It’s uncommon for pitchers to be able to do this precisely, especially with multiple breaking balls.

Harnessing it all

Having plus movement on pitches and being able to mirror them are important aspects of modern pitching, but command is still paramount.

While measuring a pitcher’s control is relatively simple and can be done using metrics like BB% and Zone% — which plainly indicate how viable a strike-thrower a pitcher is — measuring a pitcher’s command is complicated. The fact is it’s difficult to know exactly where pitchers want to throw each pitch.

However, there are still a few ways to measure how adequate a pitcher’s command is. One way is looking exclusively at their fastball command. Fastballs are not intentionally spiked in the dirt like secondary pitches occasionally are, and just in general, they’re not often aimed far outside of the zone (if at all). This is where Shadow% becomes handy.

The “shadow” zone is the zone around the edges of the strike zone, both inside of it and outside of it. Shadow% is conceptually similar to Edge%, but more well defined.

To put fastball command and Shadow% into context, in 2019, fastballs (4-seam, 2-seam, sinker) that were located in the shadow zone had a wOBA of .302 and a xwOBA of .302, per Savant. When they were thrown in the strike zone in general, the wOBA was .351 and xwOBA was .366.

With all of that said, Urquidy’s fastball Shadow% is comfortably above-average. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising since Urquidy was known for having quality control and proficient command as a prospect. But it does demonstrate that he has successfully translated those traits from the minor leagues.

TL;DR version

Numerous indicators suggest Urquidy is primed for a breakout season. His stuff is improved and his ability to locate has long been a strength.

Sarris, who has access to advanced stats such as QOS+ (quality of stuff) and Command+, is quite bullish on Urquidy.

The components are in place, Urquidy just has to put it all together. His 2020 results were mostly underwhelming but this year he’ll have a full, (hopefully) normal season, and that could be the difference.