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The steady gains of Jorge Lopez

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Having survived a rough month of April, Lopez has put his newfound velocity to good use and pitched well as of late.

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles
Jorge Lopez delivers a pitch against the Yankees at Camden Yards.
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Aside from John Means, who has been spectacular this season, the Orioles starting pitching has been wildly inconsistent. After the O’s ace, there’s 28-year-old right-hander Jorge Lopez, and then a parade of young starting pitchers familiar with going from the majors one day down to the minors the next.

A former second-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011, Jorge Lopez was claimed off waivers from the Kansas City Royals on August 9 last year. After bouncing between the O’s rotation and bullpen the previous summer, Lopez earned a spot in this year’s rotation out of spring training, which was a good thing considering he’s out of options.

Like years past, Baltimore has made liberal use of the minor league player options for its young starting pitchers in 2021. Unfortunately, while it may be in the interest of pitchers’ health since there will be a drastically increased workload across the league compared to last season, it still doesn’t seem to help inexperienced starters that are inconsistent by nature.

Maybe yesterday’s deployment of starter Matt Harvey for a planned three innings is a sign of things to come as far as injecting some creativity into a flawed area of the team.

Through two months of the 2021 season, Baltimore’s starting pitching staff has the second-worst ERA (5.28) in all of baseball. They’ve also allowed the most home runs with 53. That lines up with the O’s being an extreme fly ball team, and looking closer, their pitching unit has the worst groundout to air out ratio at 0.74 and the fourth most air outs in the majors.

Lopez had a big hand supporting some of those inflated numbers in April, but not as much recently. Recently, he’s been solid. The right-hander has turned heads this season with increased velocity, but now his overall pitching performance is getting noticed as well.

Through five starts in April, Lopez struggled mightily, putting up a 7.48 ERA while allowing six home runs in 21.2 innings. But it was a very different story in May when Lopez registered a 3.68 ERA and only three home runs over 29.2 innings pitched.

One thing that has stayed the same through these past two months is Lopez’s WHIP (1.43). Not good, obviously, but he also has a 1.46 GO/AO ratio this year, which is way above his career mark of 1.17.

So how is Lopez keeping the ball on the ground? Could pitch selection be a factor? After ditching his slider last year, Lopez brought it back into the mix this year to give him a five-pitch repertoire again. But he’s only throwing the slider 4.3% of the time. The rest of his pitch usage is broken down like this, courtesy of Baseball Savant: sinker (36.2%), four-seam fastball (24.8%), curveball (22.7%), and changeup (12.1%).

His most used pitch, his sinker, has an average velocity of 95.1 mph. That’s up 1.6 mph from last year. And it’s sinking better as the season progresses, considering Lopez’s 1.94 GO/AO ratio in May, as compared to 1.05 in April.

Lopez’s four-seam fastball velocity has increased an average of 1.2 mph to 95.1. The Orioles didn’t see this kind of velocity last year.

On May 31 against the Twins, he was pumping 95-97 mph sinkers and four-seamers at the outset. Granted, his velocity was trending downward in the latter innings, but he was still around the mid-90s in his final frame, the sixth. It was the second game in a row in which he finished the sixth inning.

The Orioles desperately need more innings eaters, and Lopez could pitch deeper into games if he did a better job going through the opponent’s batting order for a second and third time. In 2021, batters are hitting .193 against Lopez the first time they face him, .262 the second time through, and that number jumps all the way to .480 the third time.

Having sustained success the third time through a batting order is an elite trait and would require Lopez to take a giant leap forward. But who saw the increased velocity coming or the tremendous groundball rate?

A third of the way through the 2021 baseball season, Jorge Lopez has proved himself to be much more interesting than before. He had to fight for a spot in the rotation this spring, and during a rocky first month, there were calls to move him to the bullpen or waive him. But he’s earned a more extended look as one of the Orioles’ starting five.