Who’d have thought—sometimes baseball fans are geniuses. Ever since the Orioles acquired the tantalizingly gifted but inconsistent Jorge López back in August 2020, fans have been screaming for the team to pull the plug on the starter experiment and to try him out of the bullpen.
It made obvious sense: in two seasons as a starter with Baltimore López has struggled to a 6.31 ERA. His ERA in 2021 (6.30) is almost exactly what it was in 2020 (6.34). Give him props for consistency, but you figure he’s not hiding anything at this point, either. López’s woes in the fifth inning hardly need mentioning at this point, and they’re not new. Over his career, he has a 10.26 ERA and a 1.081 opposing OPS in the fifth inning, far worse than any other inning’s totals. This year, he’s allowed 16 runs in 14 “fifth innings” pitched. More runs allowed than innings pitched: that’s bad.
People want to believe in López as a starter for one simple reason: stuff. His fastball velocity is in the top quartile of MLB pitchers. His slider is a swing-and-miss pitch. His knuckle curve is a thing of beauty—when he can control it.
But that’s exactly the problem. As López progresses through a game, he goes from a high strikeout/high walk pitcher to one who just walks a lot of people. His K% (strikeouts per batters faced) drops from 22.5% in the first inning to 13% in the fifth. Hard contact goes up, too: batters slug about .447 versus López for four innings, then that rate leaps up in the fifth to .732. As the game goes on, he’s basically not a good pitcher in any sense.
For a long time, there were two reasons the Orioles resisted moving López to the bullpen: one, to see if he could hack it as a starter, where he’d have more value, and two, because there wasn’t anybody else vying for his spot. But as his late-innings ineffectiveness has continued, the former came to seem increasingly unrealistic, while replacing a negative-WAR pitcher with … well, whomever, is likely to be an improvement.
Five days ago, the Orioles finally caved. It was probably López’s state of mind that forced their hand, what with his having a very sick kid at home and clearly having difficulty facing a rotation several times around. It felt like a demotion, but also a move with some potential. And while it’s way too soon to pronounce the right-hander’s complete revival, the early results have been there.
In two appearances totaling three innings as a reliever, López has faced nine batters and struck out six of them. A 66 K% is unsustainable—but exciting. He’s walked one, who happened to be Ohtani. The contact against López, or lack thereof, is also a major sign of improvement. Against López, the Braves only put two balls in play, none over 82 mph, and the Angels only managed two balls in play in two innings themselves. As a starter, López’s exit velocity numbers had been dismal. But these results look like they’re coming from a different López entirely.
López’s fastball velocity is up significantly from its year average of 95.2 mph: it averaged 95.7 mph on August 22nd in the ninth inning against Atlanta and 96.8 mph against the Angels, a full run-and-a-half faster than usual. None of that is surprising for a starter-turned-reliever, but it’s helped the pitch grow in effectiveness. For instance, on Thursday, López rung up the Angels’ Juan Lagares with a beautiful 98-mph fastball on the corner, set up by his curveball. The heater has always been there; putting it in a context to be effective has been a different thing entirely, though.
One more thing to note about López in this role are the intangibles. López is coming out of the bullpen in attack mode. His body language is more confident, something you wouldn’t expect from a demoted pitcher out of his comfort zone. During Thursday’s broadcast, MASN’s Ben McDonald reflected on his former teammate, Arthur Rhodes, the longtime Oriole who had a 5.81 ERA as a starter and a 3.43 one as a reliever in his 20-year career. Rhodes had tried to make it as a starter, but according to McDonald, the night before he pitched, he’d get too nervous. Out of the bullpen, without a lot of anticipation and buildup, his nerves were calm.
It’s way too soon to proclaim the experiment a success, of course. But there’s hope here for López the reliever, and for the Orioles, who’ve been without a real closer for several seasons. After all, when you look at López’s career as a whole and who he is as a pitcher, it just makes so much sense.