When the Toronto Blue Jays called up Richard Urena on September 1 it seemed likely he’d be overmatched at the plate in the majors.
That’s not necessarily an indictment of his talent, but simply the logical expectation for a 21-year-old who’d hit .247/.286/.359 at Double-A. Early on, Urena did everything possible to buck that theory.
He got hits in eight of his first ten games, including an opposite-field home run and a walk-off single. He had a three-walk game — something the free-swinging shortstop only managed twice his 510-game minor-league career. He ascended to the leadoff spot and didn’t look of place as he hit .316. The hype train started to rumble down the tracks.
A four-game date with the Minnesota Twins and their uninspiring pitching staff seemed like exactly the kind of series to keep that train rolling. Instead, the series has ground it to a halt. Urena went 0-for-16, producing only a successful sacrifice bunt and a walk in 18 trips to the dish, and fell back down to the nine hole in the lineup.
It’s not only Urena’s struggles at Target Field that show his distance from being a consistent big-league contributor, it’s how he struggled. Against a pitching staff that ranks 29th in the major leagues in strikeouts, the rookie got punched out nine times. The quartet of starters he did battle with have a collective 5.00 ERA, with only Jose Berrios possessing plus stuff. The opponents he drew weren’t remotely intimidating and he got dominated.
Here’s how his struggles broke down:
Urena’s troubles began in his very first at-bat of the series as Berrios got him on three pitches. The shortstop looked overmatched taking strike one, swinging through a second-pitch fastball, then waving at a curveball in the dirt.
The pitch location of the quick at-bat looked like this:
Fast forward to the ninth inning (with a strikeout, lineout, and sac bunt in between) and Urena got set down on three pitches once again. This time it was 37-year-old veteran Matt Belisle playing the youngster like a fiddle with three consecutive sliders, all well out of the zone.
Whiff, foul, whiff, and Urena went out with a whimper.
Faced with a thoroughly washed-up Bartolo Colon, the Blue Jays prospect had an equally tough day at the plate going 0-for-5 with two strikeouts. After putting three balls in play with an average Hit Probability of 22.67 percent, he had his worst at-bat of the day watching a fastball go down the pipe for strike three against Ryan Pressly.
He capped off his performance with a strikeout off the immortal Tyler Duffey ending his day – and time in the leadoff spot.
Urena managed a walk for his first trip to base paths of the series, but he had another two strikeouts, both of a troubling variety. The first punchout came in the seventh as he was completely fooled by an Alan Busenitz curveball and couldn’t get the bat off his shoulder.
An inning later, Urena went down on a strikeout of the three-pitch variety, whiffing on two Michael Tonkin sliders down-and-in and fouling off a fastball in the zone.
Flailing on sliders in that location from right-handers has been a theme for Urena, who is going to need to make an adjustment on that pitch.
Urena got off to an inauspicious start on Sunday, striking out on four pitches to pitch-to-contact starter Kyle Gibson. Gibson threw four sliders in a row – not all of them particularly well located – and the switch hitter fouled off two, took one, and swung through the last offering.
In his next trip to the dish he had an even worse time, getting called out on just three pitches.
From there on out it was two groundouts to finish off his day, and the dismal Minnesota excursion.
An awful series like this shouldn’t change the way anyone feels about Urena long-term. He’s far from a lock to be a big-league regular down the line, but he remains an athletic, talented, high-ceiling guy. What a stretch of at-bats like this does show, though, is that he’s got a long way to go.
When Urena first arrived in the majors, pitchers force fed him a fastball-heavy diet and he showed he had the bat speed to catch up. Now they’ve adjusted to an attack plan that centres around the breaking ball, and he doesn’t look ready to handle that just yet. As a result, his current .222/.288/.333 line is probably reflective of what he’s capable of at this level at the moment.
Considering he’s just 21 years old, that’s OK. Most guys that age are nowhere near being a big-league regular. Despite the way he burst onto the scene, neither is Richard Urena.
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