Jeff Urlaub, who originally began his 2012 campaign with the Low-A Burlington Bees, has had the most impressive season from a strike-throwing perspective of any reliever in the Oakland A's system, having only walked a single batter in 38.2 innings pitched. Urlaub isn't a prototypical prospect. The A's 2010 30th-round pick battled injuries and had to fight for playing time in college and he was drafted as a fifth year senior. Despite posting outstanding numbers since turning pro, he hasn't had an easy time moving up in the A's system. Last week Urlaub finally escaped the short-season and Low-A levels, earning a promotion to High-A Stockton. Already off to a strong start with the Ports, Urlaub is finally poised to exhibit his skills against more advanced competition in a hitter-friendly envrionment.
An Arizona native, Urlaub competed for Horizon HS, where he would dominate for the program, leading the club to a 2005 state title. The lanky 6'1" lefty and senior captain had 13 victories as an upperclassman with a 2.40 ERA as a junior and 2.21 ERA as a senior. He also starred with the bat, hitting .750 during Horizon's playoff stint and was honored as the squad's most valuable offensive player in each of his upperclassman campaigns. Ranked as one of the top-50 left-handed high school pitching prospects in the country, Urlaub came to a crossroads, being drafted by Tampa Bay in the 26th round of the 2005 draft. Eventually, the Scottsdale, Ariz., native opted for college, remaining close to home at Arizona State.
Urlaub's career as a Sun Devil began with a splash, pitching consistently enough behind a potent offense to earn five wins. However, Urlaub would be struck with mononucleosis, which sidelined him for a month. All in all, Urlaub had a strong freshman campaign, however, striking out 42 in 56 frames. In one of his freshman outings, he outmatched Brad Lincoln, who would later be a first-round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Urlaub entered the next season surrounded by high expectations, but after only two appearances, he would be sidelined by an elbow ailment, which would eventually result in Tommy John surgery. Urlaub would redshirt the 2007 season and he ultimately transferred to UNLV for the 2008 campaign.
Urlaub made only two appearances for the Runnin' Rebels in 2008, sustaining a loss in the elimination game for UNLV in the MWC. He would be drafted for a second time despite his injury history, this time by Florida in the 47th round. Once again, he opted to return to college. As a fourth-year junior, Urlaub started 14 games for UNLV, including an outing where he matched up against Stephen Strasburg and San Diego State. Urlaub's campaign would be forgettable though. In 70.1 innings, he permitted 11 HR (1.40 HR/9) and struck-out only 38, while walking an uncharacteristic 21 batters (1.80 K/BB). With his final year of eligibility looming, Urlaub made a second transfer to Grand Canyon University in his birth state of Arizona.
The Antelopes of Grand Canyon benefitted from Urlaub's decision to pitch a fifth season in college. He dominated, throwing four complete games with a 57:9 K:BB in 71 IP. Named to the All-West collegiate team and All-Pac West, Urlaub entered his name into the draft pool once more and wound up pleasantly surprised when Oakland selected him in the 30th round.
"Even though I was battling injuries and bouncing around schools, I just tried to keep my head on straight," Urlaub said. "Eventually, I got my goal that I wanted which was to get back healthy after surgeries and get drafted."
The first professional assignment for Urlaub began in Arizona yet again, pitching for the A's AZL squad. He quickly settled into a bullpen role after serving as a starter for the majority of his collegiate career. In 26.1 innings for the AZL A's in 2010, Urlaub walked three and punched out 26 in 15 appearances.
The next season began on a promising note for Urlaub, who made the Low-A Burlington Bees' roster out of spring training. He would spend the entire first half of the season with the Bees. In 18.1 innings, he struck-out 23 but allowed three homeruns and walked six while posting a 3.93 ERA. Although his numbers with the Bees were decent, Urlaub was demoted to short-season Vermont at the mid-point of the year. After shaking off the disappointment of a mid-season demotion, Urlaub got to work dominating the New York-Penn League. With the Vermont Lake Monsters, Urlaub tallied 37.2 innings pitched with 49 strikeouts, four walks, five saves, and only one homerun allowed. He was selected as a mid-season All-Star and he helped the Lake Monsters earn a post-season berth.
During the off-season, Urlaub worked hard to get back into a position to break camp with a full-season squad once again.
"The offseason was mainly focused on getting stronger and staying consistent." Urlaub said. "When I'm on the mound, the main thing is to throw strikes and keep the ball down in the zone. So as long as I can perfect up-and-down and in-and-out then I know I'll be successful."
Now a Midwest League veteran, Urlaub embarrassed MWL offenses this season with his pin-point control. In 34.2 innings pitched, he had a 2.60 ERA and a ridiculous 27:1 K:BB while allowing just a single homerun. Beginning the season as Burlington's left-handed middle reliever, Urlaub progressed into a set-up position and eventually received a promotion to closer before moving on to the Cal League, securing two saves.
It has been a smooth transition to the Cal League thus far for Urlaub. In three appearances, he has allowed only one baserunner with zero walks and one strikeout in four innings. He has produced seven groundballs and a pop-up compared to three fly-balls during his brief Cal League tenure.
Despite being with Stockton for only a week, Urlaub has already noticed a big difference between the Midwest League and the Cal League.
"The hitters [In the Cal League] are a lot better than in Iowa. Especially one through nine," Urlaub said.
"In Iowa, there's probably four or five guys that can beat you where in the Cal League everyone can hit you hard especially the way the ball flies here… I take pride in my control and I'd rather give up a homer than walk a batter. The main thing I focus on is just throwing strikes and trying to get ground balls. As long as I'm around the plate and keep hitters off-balance the strikeouts will be there. It's just not on the forefront of my mind."
Although the competition level has increased, Urlaub has been told not to change his game for the league.
"[Stockton manager Webster Garrison and pitching coach Craig Lefferts] just said to keep doing what you're doing," Urlaub said.
"They knew I was successful [In Burlington] and ultimately I want to be successful here. If I just throw strikes down the zone then the results will be what they are… Up here I want to continue to work on my slider. My fastball and changeup have been where I've wanted them to be since Opening Day. Ultimately, really having that third pitch in this league will help."
Having struck-out 126 and walked 14 in 121 innings during his professional career, Urlaub has thrived in the minors. Along with current teammate Ryan Doolittle, Urlaub has arguably been the most consistent strike-thrower in the A's system the past few years. His incredible walk-rate has gained him some notice amongst stat-watchers around baseball this season.
"I've tried not to focus on that," Urlaub said when asked if he following his walk rates.
"Every once in a while I'll look at some things and I'll see I've only walked one. But I guess when I'm on the mound it doesn't really affect me. If I get down 2-0 or 3-0, I know I can throw strikes and then let the hitter do what they need to do."