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Jorge Lopez is one intriguing starter

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The fastball command looked good in his last outing, but can he sustain it?

Baltimore Orioles v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

On the night Mike Moustakas was flipped to the Milwaukee Brewers, the main attention of the deadline deal on the Royals side went to outfielder Brett Phillips. This wasn’t wrong or anything, as he was only months removed from being a top 100 prospect, a recent rarity for this organization. Little of the attention went to the arm the Royals had acquired in that deal, righty reliever Jorge Lopez. A former top 100 prospect himself, a casual baseball fan wouldn’t be too excited about the acquisition, seeing that he had owned a 5.65 ERA in 24 triple-A relief appearances.

But... if you looked deeper, you’d understand Lopez (and most Brewers pitching prospects in AAA for that matter) isn’t a guy that should be evaluated with surface stats... or really even straightforward peripherals. The first thing that hit my head with these numbers was remembering from his days as one of the better starting pitching prospects in baseball, Lopez was a heavy secondaries guy and that he had built much reliance in his best pitch, his curveball. If you know anything about how Brewers player development works, you’ll learn that their triple-A affiliate lies in the high altitude of Colorado Springs. For most pitchers, this is a place where your numbers will come to plummet. It isn’t necessarily the ball flying over the fence that will run up your earned run average. It’s the movement of your pitches. And unless you’re a triple digits flamethrower, you’ll struggle with the elevation messing up your movement, your command, and your control. Being a big curveball guy, Lopez couldn’t have had it worse. Seth Victor of BP Milwaukee explained this well back in 2016.

We also have to take into account what this decision could do to the confidence of Lopez and Davies. This isn’t to suggest that they’ll be disheartened by the minor-league optioning itself. Rather, it’s more that the Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate is in Colorado Springs, which is notoriously hitter-friendly. The ballclub suffers from the same problems that affect the Rockies’ ability to develop pitchers, in that the altitude not only inflates hitters’ numbers but also affects the break on off-speed pitches. Too much time in that environment could do damage to a pitcher’s confidence and development, as the Rockies saw when their Triple-A team was in Colorado Springs. Given the potential of both Lopez and Davies — and even lefty Josh Hader, who will likely join them — the Brewers will want to be sure their young pitchers do not spend too much time in that sort of funhouse-type environment.

Going further on that...

An additional factor in their development concerns is that both Lopez and Davies rely on off-speed pitches to be effective. As was mentioned in their scouting reports in the Brewers’ Top-10 list, Lopez possesses an above-average curveball and Davies has an above-average changeup. Given the fact that the environment in Colorado Springs is different from what it is in nearly every other ballpark in which the two will pitch in the majors, too much time trying to adjust could have adverse consequences.

There is data to back this up too. Going to one of my favorite sites for minor league context in StatCorner, Security Service Field (home of the Colorado Springs Sky Sox) showed up as the hardest ballpark to strikeout a right-handed batter in 2018 out of hundreds of major and minor league ballparks. The tenth-hardest to strikeout a left-handed batter too.

Lowest Strikeout Park Factor Among Ballparks By Batter Side

Ballpark Bats SO Park Factor
Ballpark Bats SO Park Factor
Security Service Field R 81
The Hangar L 87
The Hangar R 87
Greater Nevada Field L 87
Security Bank Ballpark L 88
State Mutual Stadium R 88
Globe Life Park in Arlington R 89
ONEOK Field R 89
Isotopes Park L 89
Security Service Field L 90
100 is average StatCorner

This can be further evidenced by some home/road splits for Jorge Lopez during his last stint with the Brewers triple-A squad.

  • Home: 18.2% K%, 9.1% BB%
  • Away: 23.4% K%, 10.3% BB%

And then there’s his career numbers between double-A and triple-A.between AA

  • AA: 24.1% K%, 8.8% BB%
  • AAA: 18.1% K%, 12.0% BB%

With all this data support, it didn’t take me long to come to this realization that the Royals should give Lopez another look at starting before his final minor league option had ran out. And they did just that, extending him out as a starter between two appearances with the Omaha Storm Chasers. Without coincidence, his K:BB numbers improved instantly with a new ballpark, striking out 11 and walking one between nine innings of work. His swinging-strike rate in 24 relief appearances with the Sky Sox was 9.5 percent. In two starts with the Storm Chasers it was 14.4 percent.

So once the Royals called up Lopez to join the major league rotation, I was excited to get a look. In his first three big league starts since 2015, the results wavered, as Lopez had clear struggles with command and finishing off hitters while ahead in the count. It didn’t take long to get what I was looking for though, as Lopez turned in perhaps the best start of his career last week against the Orioles (yes I know... it’s the Orioles), striking out eight and walking one through seven innings of one-run ball. He had command of his fastball, was getting whiffs on his secondaries, and inducing a fair amount of weak contact. He had it all working.

Dropping in beautiful curveballs like this...

And flashing great fastball command, painting the inside edge with a four-seamer here.

With the plus-secondaries that Lopez holds, fastball command, which he has struggled with overall, will be the key factor to his success as a starter. If he can’t find it, he’s probably looking at a future in the bullpen where he’ll have to live off of short-outing command and a healthy mix of secondaries. Either way, I’m excited to see what he’s got in store for his last couple starts of the season, as it could also be a tryout for a rotation spot on next year’s team. He’s got the repertoire to be a starter, now he just needs to round it out.