This article is part of the Know Your Orioles 40-man series, which features an article about each of the 38 players currently on the Orioles roster. There will be one every weekday until we run out of players.
One kind of player who you get really familiar with during a multi-year rebuilding effort where the franchise puts minimal effort into winning at the major league level is the guy who was claimed on waivers. There are seven players on the Orioles 40-man roster right now who’ve arrived in this way. Sometimes these players are here and gone in nearly the blink of an eye. Others stick around for a bit. Jorge López is one of the ones who’s stuck around.
At first glance, it is something of a mystery as to why López has stuck around. Even for a player on a rebuilding team that’s not trying to contend, there are some standards. Between 2020 and 2021, López has now thrown 160 innings with the team, most of which were thrown as a pitcher in the starting rotation. He has given up 109 earned runs.
That’s a 6.13 ERA. One illustration of how López ended up with such a high ERA can be seen in his quality start percentage. A quality start is when a pitcher goes for at least six innings and gives up three earned runs or fewer. The bare minimum gets you a 4.50 ERA; that’s more like mediocrity than quality, but still. López had just four quality starts in 25 tries in the 2021 season. If the hope was for him to soak up innings, he wasn’t even doing a lot of that.
López was bombed for four runs in two innings in an Aug. 19 start against the Rays. At the end of that game, he’d taken his 14th loss and had a 6.35 ERA for the season. Rather than dump him back onto the waiver wire where they found him, the Orioles kicked López into the bullpen. It’s a story we’ve heard before about other players. His stuff will play up more over short stints. His being inefficient with pitches will matter less when he doesn’t have to stretch that out over five innings.
Over the next two-plus weeks from that transition, López appeared in relief eight times. This is a tiny sample, but it’s a good one. He held batters to just a .194/.242/.387 batting line as a reliever, giving up just two runs in 8.1 innings - both solo home runs. In this time, he struck out ten batters. The experiment was cut short before season’s end not because of López pitching poorly but because he had the bad luck to sprain his ankle during an outing with close to a month of baseball still to play.
Although López has never really stuck anywhere as a big leaguer, he’s bounced around enough and gotten enough service time that the 2022 season marks his first year as an arbitration-eligible player. Looking only at his results as a starting pitcher, it would not have been a surprise to see the O’s let the 29-year-old go rather than pay him a small arbitration raise.
The Orioles saw enough potential in López the reliever to keep him around at a $1.5 million salary for the coming season. This is not a high price to pay for the chance that there’s a good reliever in there somewhere. It would have been disheartening if they’d cast López aside rather than take the chance at that price. A team whose payroll has bottomed out like the Orioles has, especially with the full weight of Chris Davis’s salary off the books heading into the season for the first time, can afford to make some low-seven figure bets.
It’s worth noting that metrics less directly tied to results are a bit more positive about López. He came out at 0.8 fWAR for 2021. That’s probably because his Fielding Independent Pitching was “only” 5.20, in part thanks to a higher-than-average BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .340; a typical number is closer to .300. López’s xFIP - which takes that FIP number and then assumes a pitcher’s HR/FB rate was 10.5% instead - looked perfectly cromulent at 4.48. This is because López allowed home runs on 20% of his fly balls, or nearly double the “expected” rate.
Although the O’s are pushing the left field fence back for 2022, it’s not clear how much this might help López. Nine of his 21 home runs allowed were at Camden Yards in 2021. He was bad at home, on the road, first half, second half, under open skies and in domes, bad at night, and worse in the daytime. Home runs were a problem, but hardly his only problem.
Like pretty much every Orioles pitcher who isn’t named John Means, López’s path to giving up fewer home runs will have to be pitching better. Whether he can do this is unclear. His chances are probably greater as a reliever. In an ordinary year, we might have an idea how the team was using López in camp; pitchers and catchers would have reported two weeks ago.
As of late December, beat writers like MASN’s Roch Kubatko were still leaving the door open to López getting stretched out as a starter in camp. This is one of many unexciting things to ponder about the likely Opening Day roster, whenever Opening Day ends up happening. My imagination is not so robust to imagine López being in the rotation as something with a possible good ending. I’m willing to see more of the bullpen experiment, but for the rotation, enough is enough.
End-of-season prediction: Rebuilding team that they are, the Orioles can afford to show some patience based on the promising small sample size of López in the bullpen. His place will be a fragile one, since he’s got no minor league options remaining. If he struggles even as a 6th-7th inning kind of guy, that could be it for him. He’s had enough chances in Birdland.
I take it as a given that if López gets another rotation chance, he will not turn anything around. Chances aren’t too great in relief either. I’ve seen enough “try to convert a failed starter into a reliever” jobs over the last number of years to know that the Zack Brittons appear less frequently than the Mike Wrights and David Hesses. I can see that it’s possible this might work out, and I’ll be glad for both López and for the Orioles if it does, but I think more likely it won’t and the season will end with López off the MLB roster as I end up having to settle on a new Oriole whose performance annoys me the most.
Previously: Félix Bautista, Logan Gillaspie, Isaac Mattson, Cionel Pérez, Bryan Baker, Rougned Odor, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Kyle Bradish, Rylan Bannon, Yusniel Díaz, Kelvin Gutiérrez, Kevin Smith, Terrin Vavra, D.L. Hall, Jahmai Jones, Bruce Zimmermann, Mike Baumann, Ryan McKenna, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin
Tomorrow: Ramón Urias