The Chess Match Between Jose Urquidy and MLB Hitters

How Jose Urquidy Has Adjusted to MLB Competition

Flying under the radar has not stopped José Urquidy from improving his craft in the past. In a 2019 Astros pitching prospect class highlighted by Forrest Whitley, Corbin Martin, and J.B. Bukauskas, Urquidy is the pitcher who found himself on the mound at Nationals Park to start Game 4 of the 2019 World Series, thanks in large part to a significant velocity jump that catapulted Urquidy from a Double-A Opening Day start to the biggest stage baseball has to offer.

Fast forward three years, and Urquidy found himself near the back end of a class of Astros pitchers once again, albeit a more prolific one than before. The postseason rotation of Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., and Cristian Javier left few leverage innings for the back-end arms, relegating Urquidy to mop-up duty in the postseason run that brought a second title to the city of Houston.

Despite his low-leverage role in the 2022 postseason, Urquidy had been a valuable contributor to the Astros since his debut, posting a sub-4 ERA in each of his first four seasons. However, his underlying performance indicators began to falter. In 2022, despite preventing runs at an acceptable rate, Urquidy recorded a higher walk rate, a lower strikeout rate, and a higher hard-hit rate than in the prior season.

Although the cause of Urquidy’s slight decline is far from straightforward, opposing scouting reports likely played a role. While Urquidy’s command––specifically, his ability to fill the strike zone when needed––raised the floor for the young pitcher, it established a reputation for the Urquidy around Major League Baseball.


Urquidy’s Reputation


Urquidy’s “zone-filler” reputation did not come arbitrarily. In 2021, no pitcher with more than 100 innings eclipsed José Urquidy’s 54.5% zone rate. Such a reputation, however, synchronized the league-wide approach against Urquidy. Only three such pitchers in 2021 faced a higher swing rate than Urquidy.

In other words, opposing hitters had made their move, and it was Urquidy’s turn to respond, calling for an adjustment hardly unbeknownst to young MLB players. Whether a chase-heavy hitter who has begun to see a steady diet of breaking balls, a catcher who has struggled to control the running game, or, in Urquidy’s case, a pitcher who lived too comfortably in the zone, young players have felt the pressure of “adapt or die” long before Billy Beane famously incorporated the philosophy into the core of the “Moneyball” revolution.

On the surface, hopes that Urquidy took the initiative to ensure he fell in the “adapt” category have waned. 2023 has not seemed kind to Urquidy, as a late-April injury brought Urquidy to the injured list with a 5.20 ERA, eating three months of his season. However, amid the pessimism surrounding Urquidy’s chances to reassert himself as the postseason rotation mainstay that he was in 2020 and 2021 lies an underlying source of optimism that may prove critical to Urquidy’s future value.


A New Approach


The sky-high zone rate that had seemingly defined Urquidy in his early MLB years had not only vanished but also taken a near-180-degree turn. In 2023, Urquidy’s zone rate dropped to 41.2%, falling in the sixth percentile of MLB pitchers. Simply put, Urquidy adapted.

To Urquidy’s benefit, the response from hitters has been nonexistent. The 52.9% swing rate that hitters recorded against Urquidy in his peak zone-filling season has fallen only slightly to 51.3% two seasons later. In fact, the relatively insignificant swing-rate drop-off in response to the steep zone-rate drop-off suggests that Urquidy’s high 2021 swing rate was primarily a product of swing-heavy opposing approaches, further asserting the importance of Urquidy’s counterattack.

As a result, the swings that Urquidy has induced in 2023 have been fruitful far less frequently. This season, Urquidy’s ability to generate chases and in-zone whiffs has been relatively unparalleled. Urquidy brought his 33.1% chase rate in 2022 up to 38.3% in 2023 and his 15.6% in-zone whiff rate up to 21.4%. The 2023 marks fall in the 98th percentile and the 94th percentile, respectively.


A New Pitch Mix


Moreover, Urquidy’s adjustment has extended beyond his location-based approach. Urquidy dropped his four-seam fastball usage from 52.8% in 2022 to 32.8% in 2023, giving way to his sweeper and changeup. By FanGraphs Stuff+, Urquidy’s sweeper is his best pitch, at a 119 mark. And while his changeup does not grade as admirably, it lies at the core of Urquidy’s transformation.

The success of such an unspectacular pitch––one with a 45.7% whiff rate and a 38.1% in-zone whiff rate despite its Stuff+ of merely 85––speaks volumes for the importance of the adjustment Urquidy made. Hitters who expect Urquidy to throw his fastball at a 52.8% clip are in for an unpleasant surprise, as his changeup usage has risen to a seemingly optimal point, one that maintains the changeup’s disguise while protecting the fastball from overexposure.

Despite the short-term promise of Urquidy’s new identity, its long-term prospects are less clear. Although Urquidy currently holds the lead in his figurative chess match against MLB hitters, the extent to which a response from opponents––one that involves a decreased swing rate––would deflate Urquidy’s value remains to be seen. That said, make no mistake; Urquidy is no longer the zone-filler he once was, so MLB hitters are on the clock and in need of a game plan against the new José Urquidy.

Aidan Resnick

An aspiring sports analyst, Aidan is a sophomore at the University of Chicago, studying statistics, computer science, and economics. In 2019, he attended the Wharton Moneyball Academy, the Carnegie Mellon Sports Analytics Conference, and the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which inspired him to pursue sports analytics. Since then, Aidan has displayed his passion for sports analytics in his newest book, "The Stats Game," where he and his twin brother illuminate statistical tools and debunk myths in sports analytics, in his victorious Diamond Dollars Case Competition project, and in the Resnick Player Profiles, an interactive dashboard that visualizes modern baseball statistics. At Pitcher List, Aidan strives to create content that both builds on preexisting discoveries in the analytics revolution of the 21st century and introduces new methods of analyzing baseball.

One response to “The Chess Match Between Jose Urquidy and MLB Hitters”

  1. Joe Mulvey says:

    Well done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Account / Login