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Are You For Real? Surprising MLB Pitcher Starts from Week 24

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?", a weekly column where we take starting pitchers who had surprisingly good starts over the past week and put them under the microscope to determine whether they're legit or just smoke and mirrors.

We're looking at two sides of the same game this week, as we saw an unlikely pitcher's duel on the north side of Chicago this weekend. We'll be looking at a strong start from a resurgent veteran in Colorado's Jose Urena, and a dominant first big league start from rookie Hayden Wesneski of the Cubs.

Roster percentages are taken from Yahoo and are accurate as of 09/19/2022.

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Jose Urena, Colorado Rockies – 2% Rostered

2022 Stats (prior to this start): 74.1 IP, 5.81 ERA, 4.98 FIP, 2.1% K-BB%

09/17 @ CHC: 6 IP, 7 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K

It’s been a tough season for Urena, but he turned in one of his best starts on Saturday, limiting the Cubs to just one run over six innings in the tough- luck no decision. It was the second straight one-run outing for Urena, who has a 4.15 ERA and 2.74 FIP in his last four starts. Urena was once a useful fantasy arm during his Miami days, and one has to wonder whether the 31-year-old righty has anything left in the tank as we enter the final weeks of the 2022 season.

Perhaps best known for his funky delivery and intentionally beaning Ronald Acuna Jr. a few years ago, Urena had spent the majority of his career in Miami before pitching for three different teams in the last two seasons including Colorado. Urena is a four-pitch pitcher, using a sinker, slider, changeup, and four-seam fastball. Urena is a hard thrower, averaging 95.7 MPH with his sinker and 96.1 MPH with his four-seamer. Despite the heat, Urena’s fastballs have not been his most effective pitches over the course of his career. That honor goes to his most frequently used secondary pitch, the slider.

Typically a mid-80s offering, Urena’s put a little extra mustard on his slider this season, throwing it 86.9 MPH, 1.2 MPH harder than his career mark coming into this season. It’s not just the velocity that’s changed this season for Urena either, as he’s reduced the drop on the pitch and uses it more as a traditional slider compared to the slurve (slider-curve hybrid) he was using in prior seasons. Here’s an example from this start.

And here’s an example from 2021

It’s subtle, but there’s a little more loopy-ness and slurve qualities to the pitch from last year. Not a drastic change by any means, but one worth noting.

In addition to the style tweaks, Urena is being much more aggressive with the pitch as a punchout weapon. He’s throwing it more frequently outside of the strike zone, with a 40.9% zone rate on his slider this season compared to a 48.2% zone rate for his career. Here’s a look at his slider heatmaps from this season (top) compared to his career prior to 2022 (bottom).

He appears a lot more focused on keeping the ball out of the zone and down than in past years, which is consistent with his shift towards a traditional, straight-up slider. What’s also interesting for Urena is his usage of the pitch. He’s throwing it 23% of the time, which is the same exact usage rate he had last year, however, he’s using the pitch much more frequently when ahead in the count or with two strikes. Here’s a graph detailing his pitch usage this season (top) compared to the rest of his career (bottom).

He's not throwing it more, but he is throwing more as a strikeout pitch. In theory, that should lead to more strikeouts. In theory.

In reality, Urena has seen his strikeout rate dip to a nauseatingly low 12.9% this season, which would be the lowest strikeout rate among qualified starting pitchers if Urena had enough innings to qualify. It’s the second-lowest K rate among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 70 innings this season, behind his former teammate Tyler Alexander in Detroit. At least Alexander can prevent walks, but Urena’s 10.4% walk rate is atrocious, especially considering he doesn’t make up for it with strikeouts or strong ratios.

Urena has always had command issues, but the veteran seems to have completely unraveled this season. He has allowed at least one walk in all but one appearance this season, a one-inning relief outing with Milwaukee on April 18. He has allowed multiple walks in all but one start this season and only has nine more strikeouts than walks on the year.

It’s easy to look at Urena’s stats and scoff, but there just isn’t much to like about this profile. He’s a sinker-heavy aging right-hander with poor control and a weak strikeout game. Worse yet, he pitches for Colorado, meaning the ball will fly even farther during his home games. Since joining the Rockies Urena has a 6.82 ERA at home. Often times we can get away with starting a Colorado pitcher on the road and sitting him at home, but that’s not the case for Urena, who still has a 4.70 ERA away from Coors Field. A minor tweak to his best pitch is interesting, but there’s just not much else to like about Urena’s game.

Verdict:

Moving from a slurve to a traditional slider has made Urena more aggressive with the pitch, but these changes have not resulted in consistent or improved performances for the embattled righty. The good starts are few and far between for Urena, and this is one Rockies arm you should avoid starting at home and on the road. Even in deep leagues or NL-only leagues, you can do better.

 

Hayden Wesneski, Chicago Cubs – 6% Rostered

2022 Stats (AAA): 8.2 IP, 3.12 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 26.5% K-BB%

09/17 vs. COL: 7 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 7 K

After a pair of promising long relief appearances, Wesneski earned his first start on Saturday and did not disappoint. The 24-year-old righty was electric, holding Colorado to just one run over seven innings while striking out seven in the no-decision. Wesneski has solidified his spot in Chicago’s rotation for the remainder of this season, and while many Cubs fans might be thinking about football season (okay, maybe not in Chicago), Wesneski has a chance to make an impact during these final weeks. Should you say Yesneski to Hayden, or leave this arm on the wire?

Originally a sixth-round pick by the Yankees back in 2019, Wesneski came to Chicago in the Scott Effross swap at the deadline this season. Wesneski might’ve been buried in New York, but it didn’t take long for the Cubs to promote him, with Wesneski reaching the major leagues a little more than a month after the trade. Wesneski works with a five-pitch mix consisting of a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, slider, cutter, and changeup. His best pitch is probably his slider, which was his most highly touted pitch as a prospect and the pitch he’s thrown most often thus far.

Wesneski’s slider is a bit unique compared to the rest of his pitches. It’s an 81.5 MPH offering characterized by a high spin rate (2577 RPM) and above-average vertical movement. Jose Urena might be moving away from his slurve, but Wesneski throws a looping, slider-curve hybrid slider with pride. Here’s an example from this start.

It looks like a solid offering, and his slider has been impressive thus far. Batters are hitting .091 off the pitch with a 15% swinging strike rate and a 43.9% chase rate this season. It’s still a microscopic sample size (80 pitches), but nice to see Wesneski’s slider performing this well to begin his career. This pitch has the makings of a plus offering, and it’s a valuable weapon for Wesneski on the mound.

Outside of the slider, it’s going to come down to fastball effectiveness for Wesneski, and the jury is still out on that front. Wesneski has thrown both a four-seamer and sinker with regularity but used his four-seamer twice as often in this start compared to the sinker. He does not have exceptional fastball velocity at 93.3 MPH, nor does he have exceptional spin at 2163 RPM. Again, it's a small sample size, but neither of those numbers bode well for Wesneski having a plus or even average fastball.

The measurables aren’t great, but there is one thing to like about Wesneski’s fastball, and that’s the quality of contact he’s induced. Opposing batters have an 82.3 MPH average exit velocity and a 31-degree average launch angle against the pitch this season. If a ball must enter the field of play, a softly hit flyball is the best type a pitcher could hope to induce. This is made clear by the .052 xBA against Wesneski’s fastball this season. Wesneski was not a flyball pitcher in the minor leagues, so approach with a healthy dose of skepticism, but he’s doing it right so far.

Verdict:

Wesneski’s plus slider should ensure he has a major league job in some capacity, whether it be in the rotation or the bullpen remains to be seen. He’s done just about everything right so far, but the sample size is so tiny it’s hard to accurately gauge what should be attributed to Wesneski and what’s just sheer randomness.

There aren’t that many arms out there in deeper leagues, so Wesneski makes for a decent high-risk add at this point in the season. His slider should help him produce decent strikeout numbers, and if his soft contact and flyball rates can hold to some degree he will be effective. He is too risky for standard mixed leagues at this point, and there isn’t enough time left in the season to wait and analyze, so he’s going to be an avoid in those leagues unless you are desperate. His next start should come against Pittsburgh, and one can’t ask for much better than that for a deep league find.



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