No team ever has enough pitching. The 2020 Orioles were no different, especially after some early-season injuries eroded their already thin staff. That made the decision to claim right-hander Jorge Lopez off of waivers from the Kansas City Royals a logical move.
Lopez came to Baltimore as a 27-year-old with just about one full season of big league experience spread over half a decade. His big league debut came in 2015 for the Brewers, although he only stuck around for two games. He pitched in 11 more games for Milwaukee between 2017 and 2018 before being dealt to Kansas City along with outfielder Brett Phillips in exchange for infielder Mike Moustakas. Lopez’s time in Kansas City never really got on the right track. He had some solid outings, but they were marred by inconsistency. By the time he found himself on waivers, Lopez owned a 6.42 ERA over 158.2 innings with the club.
The Orioles put their new hurler in the bullpen following the waiver claim on August 9th. His first three outings came in relief, and although they weren’t overly impressive (9.0 IP, 7 ER, 3 BB, 8 SO), he was then given the opportunity to start.
Lopez’s first start for the O’s came on August 30 against the Toronto Blue Jays. On that day, he tossed 4.2 innings and gave up three runs on three hits, three walks and three strikeouts, lowering his season ERA to 7.53 at the time.
He bounced back to earn his first win with the O’s in the second game of a September 4th double header against the Yankees, where he allowed just three unearned runs on three hits, a walk and two strikeouts over five innings.
By far his best performance, however, came on September 14th against the Braves. It may not be the most eye-popping line, but it was effective. Lopez went seven innings and served up just a solo home run while walking two and striking out three.
But his final start of the year soured his overall numbers. On September 25th against the Blue Jays, Lopez would throw just two innings but give up eight runs (all earned) on nine hits, one walk and one strikeout. His ERA ballooned from 5.11 to 6.69 in a single day.
It’s tough to get too caught up in numbers in a shortened season when one or two bad games can taint an otherwise decent campaign. But some of Lopez’s metrics are concerning regardless of the circumstances.
Let’s start with how hard Lopez gets hit. His 92.8 mph average exit velocity was in the bottom 1% of the league. Unsurprisingly, his hard hit rate against was also horrific, in the bottom 3% of the league with 49.6%. That’s not what you want to see, and it makes his .315 batting average against on balls in play actually seem a little low.
What’s worse is that Lopez does not miss a ton of bats. His 16.1% strikeout rate was the worst of his brief career, and his 6.46 K/9 isn’t going to impress anyone.
The issue would seem to be that Lopez simply doesn’t fool many hitters. While his 94 mph fastball is a touch above average in terms of velocity, his fastball spin rate is in the bottom 1% of pitchers. His curveball spin rate is in the bottom 28%. Those poor numbers make even more sense when paired with the swing tendencies of opposing hitters.
Lopez forced swings on only 42.2% of pitches. Of those swings, only 22.4% came on pitches out of the strike zone. Both of those percentages are below average. They also mean that in order for Lopez to get hitters out he has to pitch in the strike zone too often, which can be dangerous against big league sluggers.
This is put to the test even further when Lopez starts games and is expected to face an opposing order more than once. Batters had a .250/.278/.327 batting line when seeing Lopez for the first time in a game. That rose to .349/.431/.535 in the second time through the order.
So, where does that leave Lopez entering 2021? Likely in a similar spot to where he ended 2020, on the periphery of both rotation and roster consideration.
It seems clear that John Means, Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin will be back starting for the O’s next year. After that things get a little questionable. Alex Cobb may return, but not before he is put in the trading block for most of the winter. Kohl Stewart is expected back after opting out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. Bruce Zimmermann will get a long look in the spring. Plus, there are a few prospects that will have to be moved to the 40-man roster in order to be protected from the Rule 5 draft.
That last point is where Lopez’s foothold on a roster spot gets tricky. There are a handful of older Orioles that could be at risk of being DFA’ed should the need for a roster spot arise. Is Lopez more valuable to this team than David Hess? Probably. But is he worth keeping around over someone like Thomas Eshelman or Branden Kline. At the very least it is up for debate.
There is a long way to go and a lot of roster moves to be made before the Orioles get back to Sarasota for spring training. If Lopez makes it there it will be considered a candidate for the back-end of the rotation. But he is far from a shoo-in to make it that far.