DIGGING DATA: The Power Potential of Luis Urias
San Diego Padres 2B prospect Luis Urias has been screaming up Top-100 prospect lists over the last 2 years, and he currently sits at #30 in our most recent Plum Prospect Top 100. He’s 21 years old and hitting well at AAA, displaying an advanced hit tool which the scouts tell us could be one of the best out of any prospect in baseball at the moment. He’s also been projected to add more power to his small (5’9″, 185 lbs.) frame as he ages and fills out.
But what will Luis Urias become? Is he a slap-hitting utility guy or the second coming of Jose Altuve? Let’s dig into the data and find out.
One of the first things that sticks out about Urias is his size. He’s not a big dude. But does that matter? Should we be using size as a proxy for game power? I think that the answer has to be a resounding “no”. Mookie Betts (5’9″, 180) is slugging .691 with a .332 ISO at the moment. Jose Altuve (5’6″, 165) has hit 24 HR in each of the last 2 seasons. The highest ISO that Francisco Lindor (5’11”, 190) posted in his MiLB career was .118, but he’s on pace to hit over 40 HR this year. Ozzie Albies (5’9″, 160) never hit double-digit HRs in a minor league season. He has 20 in the bigs this year. So we can’t dismiss the thought of Urias hitting for more power as he develops. But we also have to realize that these types of hitters developing top-end power as they mature is the exception, not the rule.
Bobby DeMuro of Baseball Census put together an excellent scouting report on Urias this past December. He puts a 70-grade (future .300 hitter) on Urias’s hit tool, stating that Urias has a “truly freakish ability to put the barrel on the ball like few I’ve seen the last few years.” But he puts a 30-grade (3-5 HR) on his power tool. “Extremely little power at present; virtually no over-the-fence pop now and unlikely to develop into average power profile with age.”
Bernie Pleskoff filed an extended scouting report on Urias in October. It’s a great overall look at Urias as a player, but for our purposes here, this is the important bit:
“I also don’t feel Urias will hit for much power. He is slight of build and it isn’t likely that he will be able to power the ball over the fence with any regularity. I do, however, think his barrel-of-the-bat approach should yield a few home runs every season. Since he is still young, he may add some depth to his frame, but I don’t believe that will convert to much more power.”
Jason Woodell caught video of Urias’s BP session at the Futures Game this weekend:
— Jason Woodell (@JasonAtTheGame) July 15, 2018
Here’s what I see (for what it’s worth): hands are pretty quiet ahead of the swing, and does a nice job keeping them back before attacking the ball. And he can attack the ball, because the bat speed is impressive. He uses a leg kick, and his front leg leads his swing while his hands sit back. Speaking of his lower half, the legs are small. At this point in his development, he’s not going to be able to rely on the lower half to drive his power. Also, because of where his hands set up and his swing path, he has a sharp level swing plane which screams “line drive” to me (although he got under a couple balls in this particular session and popped them up). As long as he doesn’t chase pitches above his hands, I can see where the 65 future hit tool (regular .290 hitter) grade comes from. But he’s going to have to change something to hit for more power, and there’s a good chance that whatever he changes (swing path, leg kick) also degrades his hit tool in the process.
Dustin Palmateer of the Athletic put together a nice article last week ($$) regarding the potential for Urias to develop pop going forward. The article is behind a paywall so I won’t quote it, but essentially Palmateer argues that Urias is similar enough to guys like Lindor, Albies, Altuve, and Jose Ramirez that he could be the next “mighty mite”.
When I look over Urias’s stats, the first thing I’m looking at is his age relative to the level of competition. Similar to Kolby Allard, Urias needs to be given credit for his performance as a 21-year-old at AAA. And built into that line of thinking is the idea that, as Urias progresses, it is not unreasonable for him to add more power to his game (assuming a frame with projection, which is still kind of a question mark).
The next thing I note is Urias’s ISO trend in the minors. ISO measures a hitter’s extra bases per at bat, capturing a hitter’s doubles, triples, and homers. Generally, in the fantasy baseball world, I’m not interested in a prospect who posts an ISO under .200 at a level without some kind of excuse (carrying an injury or being too young for the level being the main 2). Here’s Urias’s ISO/K%/BB% chart for his MiLB career:
The immediate thing that jumps out to me is that his ISO has jumped at AAA this year, and his K% has come along for the ride. This screams to me that he’s changed his approach. Anecdotal evidence that the big leg kick he displayed at the Futures Game BP (video above) is a new development agrees with this assessment. Here’s the thing though. If he’s made an adjustment to hit for more power, his ISO is still only .141. Where’s the additional pop going to come from in the future?
Not coincidentally, his batting average has dropped. It’s down to .278 this year at AAA. And his BABIP (.349) is actually helping to hold that BA up. So if he’s trying for power, he might be doing so at the cost of his batting average. For fantasy purposes, this is generally a fine proposition, as long as the batting average doesn’t crater. But you do have to stop and think about which profile is a more valuable for your starting second baseman: a .300 average with 5 HR or a .265 average with 10 HR.
I included PAs in the chart because past ISO doesn’t become indicative of future performance until after 550 PAs or so. So we will have to wait until the end of his 2018 stint at AAA until we can say for sure whether the power improvement is a real development moving forward. And another thing to bear in mind is that ISO isn’t weighted for run scoring environment at all, and Urias has spent 2018 in the offense-friendly PCL.
We should consider park factors as well. Urias will be playing in San Diego, which is consistently one of the 5-worst power hitting environments in the MLB, depending on which factors you are looking at. Also in the division are San Francisco (probably the worst hitting environment in baseball for right-handed bats), Los Angeles (below-average for righties), Arizona (basically a much tougher offensive environment with the introduction of the humidor in 2018), and Colorado (yay!).
And then there’s the baseball. Lindor, Albies, Altuve, and Ramirez have been hitting a baseball which the MLB itself has concluded was at least partially responsible for the HR spike in recent years. There’s a very good chance that Urias will not be hitting the same baseball when he becomes an MLB regular.
We are in the habit of searching for ‘comps’ when evaluating players. In the case of Luis Urias, we are seeking out smaller players with excellent hit tools who have been able to add significant power as they’ve developed in the majors. And we are finding that the potential for Urias to develop additional power moving forward is definitely there.
However, I don’t think I’d bet on his power breakout. The tool for fantasy players to drool over with Urias is the potential 70-grade hit tool combined with a walk-rate over 10%. A consistent .300 AVG/.380 OBP, top of the order hitter should always have a regular spot in your fantasy squad. If his power breaks out as well, you’ve got a monster on your hands. Just don’t bank on it happening.