Julio Urias Might Never Be The Same
Baseball's most exciting pitching prodigy is undergoing major shoulder surgery. The Dodgers can withstand his loss—at least this year.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Back in February, an anonymous source on the Dodgers told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci about the teams' most urgent goal.
"The year comes down to this: Clayton, Richie and Julio being healthy and ready to go to start playoff games," the source told Verducci. "That's it."
Clayton, naturally, is Clayton Kershaw, the greatest pitcher of his – and most any other – generation. Richie is Rich Hill, the currently sputtering left-hander who, in 2016, was among the top half-dozen starters in baseball on a per-game basis. And Julio is Julio Urias, who last year turned in a 3.39 ERA at 19 years old, an age when even his most talented contemporaries are in college or, if they're lucky, High-A.
Urias is the most precocious pitching prospect since Felix Hernandez, who himself was the most precocious pitching prospect since Rick Ankiel. He is a once-in-a-decade bauble even amongst a farm system bursting with jewels, not because of his arm talent – although he's never lacked for velocity, sitting at an average of 93.1 miles per hour according to Fangraphs – but because of his polish. There is a smoothness to him that belies his age, four genuine pitches with an understanding of how to use them.
That is why a team with World Series ambitions could determine with total confidence that a now 20-year-old would not only be essential to its success, but also harbor little concern that he could handle it. Julio Urias is an anomaly. He is an exception. And now it could be over.
On Friday, the Dodgers announced that Urias will undergo surgery to repair the anterior capsule in his pitching shoulder. An optimistic prognosis has him pitching again in a year. A more pragmatic one is 14 to 18 months. The pessimistic—and perhaps most realistic— take is that no amount of time will be sufficient to restore to Urias's arm the magic that made him such a vibrant prospect.
Sports medicine being what it is today, there's a tendency to extrapolate even the most gruesome surgeries as career-delaying rather than career-threatening, detours instead of road blocks. It's intellectually lazy, but also understandable: By and large, athletes do return from major injuries with their talents intact. ACLs are sewn back together with such ease that Kyle Schwarber and Marcus Stroman returned during the same season that they tore them. Tommy John surgery, once the grim reaper to elbows, now yields such a high success rate that segments of the baseball world actually believe it to be performance-enhancing.
The reality is there are still medical black boxes to be cracked, and shoulder injuries are among the most opaque. A Fangraphs study from 2014 found that pitchers two years removed from elbow injuries posted an overall lower ERA and FIP than their last healthy season, as well as comparable velocity. Pitchers two years off of shoulder surgeries, on the other hand, were worse across the board.
Narrow things down to shoulder capsule injuries, and things become even gloomier. Urias' surgery is the same one that whittled Johan Santana down from an ace into an also-ran. It took two full years off Michael Pineda's twenties. Chien-Ming Wang won 19 games in 2008, got hurt the next season and only cracked double-digit starts once since. Chris Young is the closest thing the surgery has to a success testimonial; he compiled a 4.28 ERA and 5.13 FIP in five seasons after his operation.
One medical study of the surgery tracked a five-player sample with an average age of 33.5 years old, a byproduct of the reality that "anterior capsular tears can occur in older throwing athletes." Julio Urias, of course, is none of things, which brings about a particularly jagged irony. Once again, he is an anomaly, preposterously ahead of schedule and now possibly doomed well before his time, too. No pitcher this good, this young, has broken down in quite this way.
The only way out is for Urias to keep doing what he's been doing, to defy established convention once more. Here, at last, there's hope. 20-year-old bodies heal faster than 30-something ones, so youth is certainly working in Urias' favor. Dodgers president Andrew Friedman also told the Los Angeles Times' Andy McCullough that the tear is in Urias' shoulder is acute instead of due to excessive wear, something that should drastically reduce the amount of scar tissue left in his shoulder. These are rather threadbare reassurances, but they are better than nothing.
For this season, at least, the Dodgers will be fine without Urias. Kershaw, even in the midst of a relative down year, is still the best pitcher alive and Alex Wood, another lefty with shoulder concerns, has distinguished himself as the maestro's second chair. Brandon McCarthy has excelled, too, and so all Los Angeles needs to do is cull one more starter from a variety of in-house options—or, worst comes to worst, flip prospects from a loaded system at the deadline—to feel good about its postseason rotation.
The long-term prognosis could still be bright without Urias, too. Kershaw just turned 29, Wood is 26, and LA boasts several other high-ceiling arms including Walker Buehler, Yadier Alvarez and Jordan Sheffield. Their financial resources remain unmatched, too, and so one way or another, the Dodgers will get their arms.
But Urias had an allure all his own. There was a certainty to him, an assurance that, no matter the outcome of any other prospect, Los Angeles would be in safe hands after Kershaw. Now, it's all in flux.
Urias, the best pitching prospect in years—the one seemingly immune to all the plagues of wildness and immaturity that afflicted his contemporaries—was felled by the one thing truly capable of bringing him down. There's no telling whether he'll quite make it back up.