If nothing else, Jorge Lopez is showing a good sense of time and place.
Looking for another chance to show he can get the job done at the major league level, Lopez finds himself on an Orioles team that, of the the 30 in Major League Baseball, can probably least afford to be picky with its pitchers. So he’s in the right place.
His timing so far is just as good. Lopez is off to a strong start this spring (Sunday aside, we’ll get to that), sporting a 3.68 ERA in five appearances and 14.2 innings. Meanwhile, the Orioles aren’t exactly seeing dazzling performances coming from the rest of the staff. So if there’s an opportunity to be had, Lopez is doing his part to seize it.
The returns so far from Lopez are encouraging. In addition to the ERA, Lopez has struck out 14 batters, nearly one per inning. And he’s doing it against what Baseball-Reference grades as 8.2 competition on a 1.5 to 10 scale (or, a mean of AAA competition). That’s the third-highest number of pitchers deemed relievers by the site — even if Lopez is gunning for a rotation spot — behind Dillon Tate (8.3) and Zac Lowther (8.4), who’s pitched one inning.
There are some caveats to the numbers. Lopez has had a tough time keeping men off base, as a 1.432 WHIP suggests, and opponents are hitting at a .250 clip off of him even with a moderately favorable .279 BABIP helping him out.
The plot thickened on Sunday, when after two scoreless innings against the Twins Lopez suddenly lost his way, allowing three home runs in and seven runs total in one inning to throw some cold water on his promising spring training narrative.
So he’s not mowing anyone down, and this is on par with what he’s shown he can do in the league to this point. He’s got a 6.03 career ERA over five seasons and 69 appearances, his lowest ERA in a season with at least 10 appearances is 5.03, and the Orioles saw him up close last year when he made nine appearances with Baltimore and compiled a 6.34 ERA in 38.1 innings. An ace, he is not.
But baseball, more than perhaps any other sport, is about the longer sample, and before the blowup Sunday Lopez was acquitting himself well. He went into that inning with a 2.08 ERA in 13 innings, as well as a 1.077 WHIP, as well as a .188 opponents’ average. One would think that at this point that sticks with manager Brandon Hyde more than the one inning, jarring as it was to see.
Clearly, the team has him in mind for that chance in the rotation, which is really the biggest thing Lopez has going for him. There’s aren’t many others in the way. Had the Orioles picked up more veterans to bolster the rotation, or had Felix Hernandez and Matt Harvey provided more clear signs that they were their past selves, Lopez might be working against the current to stick with the rotation. As it is, Lopez may have been in mind for a spot even before spring training began.
It’s still encouraging, though, to see Lopez rising to the challenge when he has this spring. He fits the profile of a pitcher the Orioles could use, in that he has plenty of experience both starting and relieving (33 career starts, 39 relief appearances). Every indication the Orioles have given about their pitching staff, be it a possible six-man rotation or an unclear bullpen hierarchy, has been in the direction of less emphasis on roles, and more on pitching when you can. Spot starting, middle or long relief, closing, whatever. Be ready when your number is called.
Lopez’s career suggests he’d be suited for that job description.
But even if he was a favorite from the beginning for a rotation spot, Lopez has faced pressure this February and March. The Baltimore Sun called it a “pivotal spring” for him, and it has been. Had Lopez come out and struggled from his first inning on the mound, he would have put the team in a precarious spot: Either going with a pitcher who gave them no reason to believe he deserved the shot, or straining their limited depth even further.
So far, Lopez is doing what he can to earn the job. Of course, he needs to rebound in his next start for that to remain the case.