Back in July of last season, I made the case for several Orioles to end the year with a postseason award. Of the players mentioned in that article—Jorge Mateo, Adley Rutschman, Felix Bautista, Jorge Lopez—none of them actually walked away with any hardware (though I’m sure we’re all still bitter about the Mateo Gold Glove snub). The one Oriole who did in fact become a first-time award winner in 2022 was Ramón Urías, as the second-year third baseman became the Orioles’ first Gold Glove winner since Manny Machado in 2015.
For most reigning Gold Glove winners, it’s a given that they will feature prominently in their team’s lineup the next season. The same cannot be said for Urías heading into the 2023 season. The assumption heading into spring training was that Gunnar Henderson would take the lion’s share of the playing time at the hot corner, as third seemed to be his long-term position for the O’s.
Twelve games into spring training, though, and it hasn’t exactly played out that way. Urías has started four games at third baseman to Henderson’s two, while Gunnar has seen more action at SS early on. Mateo is still the unquestioned, everyday starter at short, but the split so far suggests we’ll see much more of a rotation when it comes to the hot corner. This is good news for our favorite Mexican defensive wizard.
After all, benching the unquestioned best-fielding baseman in the American league is something much easier said than done. Per Baseball Reference, Urías’ 14 Defensive Runs Saved in 2022 were double the next closest AL third baseman. While the competition for spots in the Orioles’ infield will be undoubtedly fiercer in 2023, that kind of defense—at one of baseball’s most important defensive positions—is always going to earn Urías playing time.
The key to whether Urías can top the 118 games and 403 ABs he put up last year will likely come down to how he develops as a hitter. In that regard, 2022 represented a step back from the numbers he put up during his rookie season. After putting up an encouraging .279/.361/.412 triple slash line in 2021, both Urias’ batting average and on-base percentage saw significant drops in his sophomore season, with his 2022 triple slash finishing at .248/.305/.414.
Much of his drop in production in 2022 can be attributed to Urías’ performance against right-handed pitching. During his rookie season, Urias showed signs of being an elite performer against righties, putting up a .315 average to go along with a .402 OBP and a .420 SLG. To put that in perspective, last year’s AL All-Star at third base, Rafael Devers, had a .305 batting average and .374 OBP against righties.
The 2022 season brought a much different Urías at the plate. His batting average against righties dropped 56 points while his OBP dropped nearly 90 points. Even his numbers against lefties—which were not good to begin with—took a hit. Only Urías’ slugging percentage against righties held on, actually jumping up to .427 in 2022.
A large part of O’s third baseman’s struggles at the plate last season came from his inability to lay off pitches outside the zone. After posting a modest 17.8% chase rate in his rookie season, that number jumped up to 28.8% against right-handers last year. In a season where so many of the predictors of offensive success—hard hit%, barrel rate, average exit velocity—stayed largely the same for Urías, his ability to stay disciplined against pitches outside the zone continually let him down.
This begs the question, as we head into the 2023 season, as to what Urías we’ll see this year. Through two seasons, we have enough evidence to believe he’ll keep being a reverse splits guy—better against righties than lefties. What isn’t clear is just how good Urías will be this year against right-handed opposition. Projectors seem to think this coming season will end up somewhere in the middle.
ZiPS: .255 AVG, .325 OBP, .423 SLG, 14 HRs in 426 PAs
Steamer: .245 AVG, .313 OBP, .395 SLG, 11 HRs in 403 PAs (both from FanGraphs)
Marcel: .256 AVG, .322 OBP, .410 SLG, 14 HRs in 452 PAs (from Baseball-Reference)
The case for the over
Much of the variance in these projections seems to come down to how much the projectors think Urías is actually going to play in 2023. As we’ve seen so far in spring training, Brandon Hyde seems to value Urías’ defense enough to give him more playing time than we initially expected he’d get. Perhaps this is all Urías will need to work through his discipline issues and get back to being the hitter that posted a .329/.380/.575 triple slash throughout July last year—or at least somewhere close to that.
The O’s coaches have shown an ability to successfully guide players through poor chase rates; that ability was a big part of a breakout year for Anthony Santander last year. Urías probably won’t come close to being a 600+ PA player—the competition for ABs among the Orioles infielders is too heated for that to happen. However, we know his defense is so elite that he could end up being closer to 500 PAs than 400. If that’s the case, he should have enough opportunities to rediscover his discipline and his ability to mash righties—and soar past the projections along the way.
The case for the under
The inherent disadvantage that Urías faces coming into this season is the players he’s competing with for playing time. The expectation is that Gunnar Henderson will eventually become elite in just about every facet of the game. Jorge Mateo may not be as well-rounded as Gunnar, but he has two undeniably elite traits that are also incredibly dependable—his speed and his defense. Urías’ defense is really the only elite trait that this team can count on to show up day in and day out. Sure his ability to defy conventional wisdom and dominate right-handed pitching can be elite, but last season showed that it’s far from a given.
Gunnar could easily continue to translate his raw talent into production at a ridiculously fast rate. Mateo could very well maintain a high enough OBP percentage that his speed becomes too valuable to take out of the lineup. If both those things happen, the numbers game suggests there just won’t be enough PAs for Urías to to outperform his projections. Plenty of defense-first players have shown flashes of offensive potential early in their careers that they fail to replicate season over season. If Urias starts to fall victim to that pattern, Hyde simply has too many talented infielders to let him play his way through it.
Don’t let me—or the projectors—be the final authority on how Urías will follow up his Gold-Glove-winning season, though. Do you think he will pair impeccable defense with a resurgent year at the dish? Or will he fall victim to the surging amount of talent in the O’s infield? Vote in the poll below!
Will Ramón Urías go over or under his ZiPS projected OPS of .748
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