With each swing, the result from the plyo ball — a heavy, sand-filled cylinder — would tell Orioles infielder Ramón Urías all he needed to know. If it flopped to the ground or skewed back toward home plate, he didn’t hit the ball squarely enough or follow the upward swing trajectory he was trying to master.
That’s how Urías has spent his days in the batting cage with co-hitting coach Ryan Fuller since spring training, facing those plyo balls in an attempt to inch his launch angle higher and higher. When Fuller sat Urías down during before the season, the statistics from 2021 were convincing.
Urías average launch angle of 5.2 degrees? It wasn’t high enough, and it led to a 49.7% ground ball rate, the highest of his career.
With that in mind, those cage sessions with Fuller and co-hitting coach Matt Borgschulte became pivotal. Urías’ point of contact moved forward slightly. His hand position transferred up slightly. His swing path grew more parabolic. And before long, those heavy, sand-filled balls began sailing off his bat with a thunk and hit the back wall of the cage.
“He hits the crap out of those every day,” Fuller said.
Urías began those changes this offseason, and he’s seeing the fruits of his labor consistently now. Since he returned from an oblique strain that left him on the injured list for about three weeks, Urías has been nearly unstoppable, with the latest example a two-run home run in the eighth inning Tuesday night to put the Orioles ahead for good in a 5-3 win against the Tampa Bay Rays.
On the whole, Urías is hitting .397 in 17 games this month, with five homers, three doubles and 18 RBIs. That would be the highest batting average from an Orioles player in a single month since Adam Jones hit .400 in April 2015, according to MLB.com.
It’s something that’s always been possible in Fuller’s eyes. And now it’s playing out in front of everyone at Camden Yards on a nightly basis.
“We’ve always been very bullish on Ramón,” Fuller said. “It was just hoping that he could stay healthy, and when he came back from that injury, it was, ‘OK, you’re feeling good? Let’s see what you can do.’ And he’s been showing it every day.”
Urías is less ready to admit there have been any changes. When asked whether he tweaked anything after returning from the injured list, Urías said the improvements are just “the way baseball goes” sometimes.
But baseball has been going better for him lately than the “luck” he chalks it up to or “trusting my plan” at the plate. In his first 49 games of the season, Urías hit .225 with a .660 OPS. He struck out in just over 25% of his plate appearances and he managed hard contact on 7.2% of the pitches he saw, per Statcast. That hard contact featured an average 9.1-degree launch angle, below the target Fuller sets.
Organizationally, Fuller said the Orioles look for a 20-degree launch angle. That offers room to maneuver — a slight miss either way could turn into a home run or a line drive over an infielder’s head. Fuller doesn’t mind seeing Urías closer to 12 degrees, which would equate to a liner just out of the reach of a shortstop.
That’s what Urías has accomplished in July. On his hard-hit balls, his launch angle has averaged 13 degrees. His average launch angle on all swings this month is 14.2 degrees. It’s led to his surge at the plate, with balls leaping over infielders — or over the outfield fence.
“For us, that’s perfect,” Fuller said. “He’s not gonna be a guy who’s going to need to go super high to try to hit it far. Right over those infielders’ heads, and if it goes a little bit higher, he has the ability to leave the park in any part, especially right-center field, left-center field. But those numbers right there have been kind of been a good guide for us to say we’ve been working on the right things. It’s translating like we want it.”
The Orioles claimed Urías off waivers in 2020 from the St. Louis Cardinals, and he made his major league debut that summer. But when he first arrived at the alternate training site in Bowie and Fuller saw him swing, the possibility of future success became evident.
It was his swing path, plate discipline and hard contact. The “missing piece,” Fuller said, was raising his launch angle to avoid the groundouts he was susceptible to. He’s done that this year, with Urías’ average launch angle rising 5.6 degrees. With that, his hard-hit rate has risen 5.8%.
Those two, plus the thunk of the heavy, sand-filled plyo balls in the batting cage, were the precursor to all this — punctuated by another marquee moment Tuesday.
“I was so excited at the beginning of the year for what he was going to do,” Fuller said. “And we’re seeing what he’s capable of doing right now.”