In July of 2012, the Orioles signed Cuban defector Henry Urrutia, an outfielder whose listed birthdate is February 13, 1987 (which would make him 26 years old.) Urrutia was suspended from Cuban baseball for the 2011 season after a failed defection, and didn't play in 2012 while he was resolving U.S. visa issues. After this two-year layoff, the Orioles sent him to AA Bowie, where he has been hitting well — .350/.407/.554 through June 20. Because of that, and because the Orioles' designated hitters have been really awful, Orioles fans are hoping that Urrutia can be promoted and continue to hit well. When I took my fantrip earlier this month, I hoped I would see him.
I saw Henry Urrutia play three games. In the first, June 5 at Harrisburg, Urrutia and the Baysox as a team didn't play well; no one hit Harrisburg pitchers well in a 6-0 defeat. On June 8, the Baysox hosted New Britain in a rainout-makeup doubleheader; both games were scheduled for seven innings but the first went nine. Those games provided a more positive view of Urrutia as the Baysox lost game 1, 11-8, and won game 2, 6-4. In addition to my observation, I chatted about Urrutia (and other topics) with fellow BIS data gatherers at Bowie; they are knowledgeable, long-term baseball fans who see a lot of Baysox games.
Urrutia is trim and athletic-looking; in Bill James' phrase, he looks good in the uniform. Despite that, he doesn't run exceptionally fast. Although he threw out one runner at the plate, he otherwise was content to field the ball, make sure that the runners weren't taking outrageous chances, and deliberately return the ball to the infield. Typically, that's the sign of an outfielder who doesn't want to expose his lack of arm strength; I'm not ready to conclude that he has a weak throwing arm but I doubt that he has an especially good one.
It's with his bat that Urrutia must make an impact, and my own observation is backed up by the opinions of my BIS scoring colleagues. When Urrutia makes contact, the ball jumps off the bat. In the games I saw, he had twelve plate appearances. He had three strikeouts, two singles, a double, and six groundouts. The two singles were on ground balls; the only ball he hit in the air was a sharp line drive that went for the double.
Of his eight ground balls, two were sharply hit and one was softly hit.
My BIS scoring colleagues confirmed that Urrutia consistently squares the ball off the bat when he makes contact. And that is evident in his .350 batting average. His walk rate, at 10% of at bats, is fine when he hits .320 or better; and he strikes out less than twice as often as he walks. He's hit seven home runs in 180 at bats; which would be about twenty in a full season.
On the other hand, my BIS scoring colleagues and I see that Urrutia is having trouble with pitch recognition. He particularly flailed at breaking pitches down and away. Of course, we can't know if he's still rusty from his enforced layoff, or if he is not used to seeing this level of pitching, or if he has always had this problem. It's worth watching to see if he will recognize and stop swinging at those pitches or if AAA and major-league pitchers will be able to render him less effective by throwing those pitches more frequently.
Recent Cuban defectors who have played professional baseball in the United States fall into one of three groups. First, there are the quality major league players who at least to some degree live up to their reputation, like Orlando Hernandez, Livan Hernandez, Rey Ordonez, Jose Contreras, Aroldis Chapman, and Yoenis Cespedes. At the other extreme are overhyped busts, like Adrian Hernandez and Andy Morales. In the middle are the players who carve out careers as marginal major-leaguers and AAA veterans, like Juan Miranda, Barbaro Canizares, Francisley Bueno, Leslie Anderson, and Ronnier Mustelier. While I haven't seen enough of Urrutia for my opinion to be much more than a guess, and it's too early to form a firm conclusion, Henry Urrutia seems to be more like Leslie Anderson than Yoenis Cespedes.