Richard Urena, the Toronto Blue Jays’ top shortstop prospect, has developed a much different approach at the plate over the past two seasons
Of the many Blue Jays’ prospects reaching the upper-minors in the current wave, shortstop Richard Urena is among the most intriguing given his raw talent and premium position.
Urena, who will be 21 in February, has also added some challenging variables to his development offensively. If they pay off, however, it could give the Blue Jays a dynamic all-around asset towards the end of Troy Tulowitzki’s contract.
In 2015, Urena picked up switch-hitting full-time in an effort to improve against left-handed pitching. It was a bold move considering that he’d struggled against lefties while hitting purely from the left side, but he hadn’t been awful by any means.
Here is Urena in 2014 hitting against Jesus Tinoco.
Let’s jump to February of 2015, now, for a look at Urena working from the right side of the plate. This at-bat is cherry-picked for a reason, and as you might expect, Urena’s balance and swing mechanics from the right side weren’t nearly as natural at that point
Urena’s 2015 results from both sides of the plate:
Now, Urena from the right side in 2016:
The swings and misses remain in this at-bat, but Urena’s numbers took a step forward with the added year of experience, comfort, and muscle memory.
Mirroring the same swing from the opposite side of the plate is challenge enough, but Urena has actually gone one step further.
Below are two stills of Urena’s swing just prior to unloading. In the left image from 2014 (source: MLB Prospect portal), an 18-year-old Urena uses a traditional toe-tap in his swing. You’ll see this more visually in the very top video, but you’ll also notice that the toe-tap is not far from being extended into something more pronounced.
In the right image from 2016 (source: 2080 Baseball), Urena shows the leg kick that he’s fully adopted over the past two seasons. Leg kicks have been a theme running through the Blue Jays’ organization the past couple of years with the success of Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson. Even Troy Tulowitzki toyed with one for a short time in early 2016.
That power load has paralleled a spike in Urena’s home run totals and slugging percentage, which isn’t a coincidence for the skinny-but-strong prospect.
His first full season with that leg kick (2015), Urena set a career high with 16 home runs — a number that, frankly, was not expected from him at that point in his development. Urena’s home run total normalized to eight in 2016, but with 24 doubles and eight triples, his slugging percentage actually climbed from .407 to .434.
From the right side, where Urena is still clearly developing, his timing will be the primary tool to monitor. If he plants his front leg too early (usually on breaking balls), he’s left out ahead of the pitch and off balance. If he plants too late (fastballs), he’s left behind the ball and loses power.
When done correctly, though, the benefits can worth the added time of development. These two changes have raised Urena’s offensive ceiling, and while that doesn’t make him any safer of a bet to reach his full potential, it does make him a significantly more interesting prospect.