When the Brewers acquired Luis Urias in November 2019, he was seen as a replacement for Orlando Arcia at shortstop. Arcia was one of the worst offensive players in franchise history. The Brewers had hinted that they were growing impatient with him and searching for an upgrade. Urias was ranked as the #3 prospect in the San Diego Padres organization and the #31 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America in 2019. Scouts were impressed by his quick bat speed, plate discipline, and ability to hit to all fields. They projected him as a potential .300 hitter.
Urias failed to cement himself as Milwaukee’s starting shortstop due to a poor showing with the glove, but he has been making an impact at the plate. While his 103 wRC+ is not especially eye-catching, it is slightly above league average and means that he has been one of the more productive hitters for a Brewers offense that has sat near the bottom of the league in many categories. However, Urias is not hitting .300; he’s hitting .227. His production has not been fueled by hitting for average, but by drawing walks and showing some pop at the plate. The 24-year-old hit his seventh home run of the season on Thursday night. He entered the year with six career long balls, and he has already surpassed that total in under 200 plate appearances in 2021.
The infielder’s newfound power is a stark contrast to his inaugural season in Milwaukee. Last year, Urias showed little to nothing in the way of power. His 27.3% hard hit rate and 1.3% barrel rate were near the bottom of the league. He hit no home runs and managed just five extra-base hits total. Urias finished the shortened season slugging a punchless .294. Simply put, he struggled to hit the baseball with any semblance of authority.
There was a reasonable explanation for this. Urias developed wrist soreness while playing winter ball in Mexico, and an examination revealed a broken left hamate bone that required surgery. While David Stearns attempted to downplay any potential long-term impacts of the ailment and subsequent procedure, it is well known that wrist injuries can zap a hitter of his power for a significant stretch of time, even after the wrist is technically healthy again. It should come as no surprise that Urias struggled in his first action post-injury.
The wrist injury may have actually stunted the power from surfacing earlier. Urias blasted 19 home runs in just 339 plate appearances at Triple-A in 2019, not to mention the additional four that he hit across his intermittent big-league stints that year. That figure represented a significant jump for the top prospect, who left the yard a combined yard eight times the year prior.
Now over a full year removed from his wrist woes, Urias is making much more authoritative contact. His hard hit rate has shot up to 40.6%, and he is barreling up 11% of the balls he puts in play. His xwOBAcon (expected wOBA on contact) has shot up from .318 to .383.
The changes span beyond those figures. Urias has also made some dramatic adjustments to his approach. After posting a concerning 63.2% ground ball rate last year, he has transformed himself into a fly ball hitter. Wicho has slashed his grounder rate to 37.7%, and his fly ball rate has risen an astounding 22.2 percentage points to 40.6%. His line drive rate has also increased to 21.7%. As you probably guessed, these are all the best marks of his MLB career.
Urias also possesses one of the highest spikes in the league in average launch angle from 2020 to 2021—2.3 degrees to 14.6 degrees. His pull rate has jumped from 41.6% to 49.1%. An emphasis on pulling the ball in the air doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for a significant percentage of hitters. It looks like Urias falls into that group.
On top of the adjustments evident in the numbers, Urias has also made some clear changes to his batting stance. Take a look.
Be it with Andy Haines or another coach, Urias obviously worked with someone on his setup. This year, he is square compared to the more open stance he used in 2020. He is standing less upright, is not as stiff, and is bending his knees more. While not evident from a still image, Urias previously tended to rock his bat back and forth while waiting for the pitch. He now appears to have eliminated some of that pre-pitch movement by keeping the bat rested on his shoulder.
Urias has transformed himself from an extreme ground ball hitter to one who makes more solid contact and pulls it in the air. In addition to the home runs, he is starting to demonstrate some gap power. He has eight doubles to go along with the seven round-trippers. Strikeouts continue to be somewhat of an issue for Luis, who has punched out 25% of the time. However, his career-best 12.5% walk rate has helped to counter his occasional shortcomings with making contact.
If there is any downside to the new approach, it is that it has come at the expense of Urias’ batting average. He is hitting .227, and his .223 Statcast expecting batting average is no better. However, the newfound power has lifted his OPS from .602 to .746, and because of his patience at the plate, his .326 OBP is actually an improvement over last year’s .308 mark. Urias has evolved for the better.
We have passed the one-quarter mark of the season, so the changes reflected in his batted ball data are for real, even if they may not remain this extreme for the remainder of the year. The power surge appears legitimate. Urias’ 15.6% HR/FB ratio is not much higher than the 14.5% mark across the league, so he is not getting lucky with a bunch of wall scrapers.
After the early results of the trade with the Padres were not promising, it is encouraging to see Urias grow more comfortable at the plate and develop a new approach that has yielded results. As Travis Shaw continues to slump, it also provides hope that Urias could be a more legitimate solution at third base than initially thought. He played stellar defense at the hot corner in 2020, but his light-hitting bat did not profile for the position.
Luis Urias is healthy, and he has made adjustments. The results are starting to follow—particularly in the power department—and they look like they’re real. This is a promising development for the Brewers. Even if Urias failed to seize the starting shortstop role, he can still develop into a solid bat in the infield as they hoped he would.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Savant and FanGraphs. Prospect rankings courtesy of Baseball America