Once baseball's Public Enemy No. 1, Jose Urena ready for new, healthy chapter in Detroit
Detroit — More than two years later, Jose Urena still insists the pitch just got away from him.
If you knew anything at all about this lanky, Dominican-born right-hander before the Tigers signed him last week for one year at $3.25 million, it was probably that on Aug. 15, 2018, Urena, pitching for the Marlins, was suspended for six games after he drilled Braves slugger Ronald Acuna Jr., with the first pitch of the game — a 97-mph heater.
Because Acuna had homered in five straight games and had hit lead-off homers in the last three, the immediate reaction was Urena beaned him on purpose. Urena maintained afterward and ever since that he was pitching to his plan — throw the fastball in, move him off the plate and then try to get him out with a sinker or breaking ball on the outside part of the plate.
That first pitch, he said, got away from him and for that he was sorry. This is a pitcher who for two seasons led the National League in hit batsmen, so pitching inside is part of his game. That’s what he tried to explain to people. It was a mistake, an errant pitch — not a beanball.
Nobody bought that. Not the league, not even his manager Don Mattingly. But Urena, who spoke to the Detroit media for the first time via Zoom on Tuesday, isn’t changing his story.
“I (still) don’t look at it that way,” he said.
What’s lost in that incident is how Urena responded. He was the Bill Laimbeer of baseball for the rest of that season, but he came back from the suspension and went 6-0 with a 1.80 ERA in his last seven starts of the 2018 season.
Which, come to think of it, was a very Laimbeer-like reaction. The more you hate on him, the more he wants to beat you.
So, contrary to popular belief, drilling Acuna wasn’t what altered the trajectory of Urena’s career. Actually, it's more poetic than that.
His career in Miami was derailed on the same day Acuna exacted his revenge. June 7, 2019. Eight of Urena’s previous nine outings had been quality starts, but that day the Braves lit him up. Acuna’s majestic bat flip after a lead-off home run in the fourth was the fiery, in-your-face exclamation point.
Turned out, Urena was pitching with a herniated disk in his lower back. He went on the injured list the next day and never fully returned to form with the Marlins.
“After I got hurt, my back, it took me a little longer,” he said. “Anybody who has had a herniated disk, it’s a long process for your recovery…The process was a little difficult.”
When he finally returned to the Marlins in September, he worked out of the bullpen and eventually became the club’s closer. Last season was almost a total wash. He was limited to five starts because of COVID-19 and on the last one, he took a line drive off his forearm, fracturing his ulna bone.
He was subsequently non-tendered and designated for assignment after the Marlins acquired reliever Adam Cimber.
“I’m healthy now,” he said. “You work every day. You look back at 2017, 2018 when I was healthy and I was complete, then 2019 and 2020, there was a lot of stuff for me…But if I go out there and I can be healthy — the longer I can be out there competing the better I will be.”
That’s what the Tigers are counting on as they try to build a rotation for 2021 that, including starters at the Triple-A level, will go 10 or 11 deep.
Urena is 29 years old. He’s thrown just 108 innings the last two years. And when he’s right, he features a heavy power sinker and four-seam fastball (both in the 95-96 mph range) with a slurvy slider that he began to use more last year and a hard change-up (90 mph).
“Once José became available, we had him identified as a player that could come in and help our ballclub win games,” general manager Al Avila said last week after the Tigers made the signing of Urena official. “We’re excited to add his experience, pitching at a high level, and know he’ll contribute to our young staff in significant ways.
“José has a great ability to navigate a lineup and limit damage, while keeping his team in the game, which is exactly the stability we’re looking for heading into the 2021 season.”
That’s the type of pitcher he is, not a lot of swing-and-miss but crafty. In his two best seasons in Miami, he got a lot of soft contact and ground balls. And it is certainly not a coincidence that in those two seasons — 2017 and 2018 — his pitching coach was Juan Nieves, now the Tigers assistant pitching coach.
“I know Juan Nieves and he knows me,” Urena said. “We worked together for a couple of years and it was pretty good for me…He helped me a lot. He worked with me to keep the same rhythm, to go out and fight and attack with my strengths.”
He didn’t get much chance to apply it last season, but he’s changed his approach a bit since 2019. Like a lot of sinkerball pitchers, the trend toward hitters increasing their launch angle worked against his bread and butter. Pitches down in the zone were no longer getting beaten into the ground, they were being launched off the barrel.
That’s when he started throwing more four-seamers, which stayed straight and up in the zone, and sliders.
“I got on myself to have more use with the breaking ball,” he said. “With my fastball and change-up, there wasn’t enough difference in speed. Sometimes I throw my change-up too hard. It’s hard for me to slow my body down and my arm gets too quick.
“The slider helps me slow everything down…The four-seamer, that’s what we started to implement more last year. We started to attack more with a straight four-seam and slider (out of the same arm slot) on the outside corner – it made a big difference.
“We’re going to try to put that together.”
The Marlins are the only organization Urena has ever known. He was there 12 years, all told. Now he’s coming to a new team, in a new city with a vastly different climate — asked if he had a winter coat he said, “I hope so” — and to a new league. Ch-ch-ch-changes, indeed.
“Yeah, it’ll be a new experience for me,” he said. “I just thank all the people for their support and I am very happy to be working for the Detroit Tigers.”
The Tigers may see him as a reclamation project, a strong bounce-back candidate, but Urena isn’t bringing that kind of baggage with him to Detroit.
“I don’t say I have a goal, I like to say I have a target,” he said. “I am going to do everything I can do to be consistent and to go out and have fun. I have a lot to bring for people who love this game. I am going to go out there and be consistent and do the best I can to execute my plan.”