If it were easy, everyone would do it. Play baseball, I mean. No, I mean quit a starting pitcher role and turn into a veritable ace in relief.
Starting pitching has always been where it’s at, and this is still true (albeit to a lesser extent) today. The great Baltimore teams of the late ‘60s had the best bullpen in the game, with guys like Stu Miller, Dick Hall, Eddie Fisher, and Moe Drabowsky. But well into the ‘70s, complete games remained common enough (for instance, in 1977 Jim Palmer and Nolan Ryan tied for the AL lead with 22) that bullpen work was considered a demotion.
It wasn’t until Felix “Tippy” Martínez, who earned 105 saves with Baltimore between 1976 and 1986, that the Orioles closer was a thing. Then came Gregg Olson (“The Otter”), who still leads the Orioles with 160 career saves, Randy Myers, who saved 76 games for the O’s in two seasons (including 45 in 1997), then a bunch of less storied names (Alfredo Simon, George Sherrill, Koji Uehara, Kevin Gregg) before Jim Johnson burst onto the scene in 2012 with a franchise record 51 saves, signaling the end of the dark ages. Starter-turned-closer Zack Britton was a revelation, his 2016 season ranking as one of the greatest by a relief pitcher in baseball history, with a 0.54 ERA and 47 saves in 47 chances.
Anyway, storied stuff. The Orioles haven’t had a great closer since Britton, and heading into 2022 it was far from obvious that they’d have another….
For the better part of six seasons, Jorge López was an unsuccessful fringe starter candidate bouncing among teams. A 1.67 WHIP with Milwaukee, a 6.42 ERA in Kansas City, then a second (third) chance in Baltimore… translating into a 6.34 ERA in 2020 and 6.07 mark in 2021. None too exciting.
You could watch the stuff—the fastball velocity, the movement on López’s sinker, the break on his curveball—and understand why the scouts were tempted. There is more value to be mined in being a starter than a reliever, even in today’s era of short starts and relief specialists, so you get why the teams would try and try to make it work. But time and again, the fifth inning would roll around and López would collapse: his fifth-inning ERA is 10.26. And it may stay there, forever. But that doesn’t matter because...
In his new role as a closer, Jorge López is kicking ass. According to Fangraphs, he’s currently the fifth-most valuable reliever in baseball, with 1.1 WAR in 29 appearances and the sixth-lowest ERA, at 0.79. (This probably underestimates his worth, because closing is its own thing.) He’s third among all AL pitchers in win probability added, which translates into, “Put Jorge López in and the game is over.” Which is how Brandon Hyde has been using him: 60% of López’s appearances have been of the high-leverage variety, and he’s rewarding his manager’s trust by holding opposing hitters to a .141 average on these occasions.
What is López doing differently? Throwing faster, for one. “Has he always thrown this hard?” has asked every Orioles fan who’s watched him this year, period, as López pumps in 99-mph sinkers. Nope. Even López is surprised at his own velocity, winningly answering in a post-game interview on April 20, “I didn’t really didn’t expect that, for real, being honest. I know got good strong arms, good strong body, but in that high velocity, it’s something I had in mind never.”
There’s more to it than that. The pitch mix is also different. Across MLB, pitchers are throwing fewer and fewer fastballs, and López is more than typifying that trend. As you can see below, in 2022 López’s four-seam fastball has nearly gone extinct, and his sinker has become his signature pitch, thrown 52% of the time. It’s more effective than ever, with an expected average of .191 on it, compared to .275 last year. This result is true for all López’s pitches: expected slugging on the curveball is .209 (down from .450 in 2021), .247 on the changeup (down from .478) and .077 on the slider (down from .323).
Besides velocity, López’s pitches are sharper, too. Brandon Hyde has said López’s arsenal has gotten better, and he’s right. All of his pitches have more vertical break on them (see below)—especially his curveball, which went from 1.8 inches of break to 3.2 inches this year. That’s the biggest jump, but they’ve all jumped. Break is a function of spin, and every one of his pitches has more spin: the slider (2231 RPM —> 2355 RPM), the sinker (1967 RPM —> 1988 RPM), the curveball (2378 RPM —> 2435 RPM), and the changeup (1614 RPM —> 1666 RPM).
López’s work this year isn’t perfect. Eutaw Street Report is calling him “The Poor Man’s Britton” because he K’s far fewer hitters and walks more of them than Britton did in his prime. Their conclusion: “Lopez will eventually start giving up runs,” and for the right price, Mike Elias might want to deal him. That’s OK. Either way, this is a win-win development for all involved. If teams place a high value on López as a cheap closer with a sub-1 ERA and multiple years of control left, they may offer the Orioles enough prospects to convince Elias to play ball. If not, the Orioles keep him around as a high-leverage arm in the bullpen.
The Orioles may not have discovered Jorge López, but they definitely cultivated him. From a liability to his team on the mound to a potential All-Star reliever, López’s move from the starting rotation to the bullpen has completely turned around his career.