Orioles reliever Jorge López has been an early-season revelation for the Baltimore Orioles bullpen as well as fantasy baseball managers who have rostered him.
Prior to this season, the 29-year-old Puerto Rican pitcher was a middling starter who posted a 6.07 ERA in 121.2 IP in Baltimore last season, a 6.69 ERA in 39 IP between Baltimore and Kansas City in 2020, and a 6.33 ERA in 123.2 IP in 2019 with the Royals.
Hence, it was not a surprise that López was averaging an overall ADP (average draft position) of 648, which included a 721 ranking in NFBC and an 815 ranking in FanTrax leagues going into 2022.
However, in a surprise development, López has usurped the Orioles’ closer role, which was left vacant at the beginning of the season after projected closer Cole Sulser was traded to the Miami Marlins on April 4th.
In this role, López has not only saved four games in 10 appearances and 11.1 IP for the Orioles, but he has also generated a K rate of 30.4 percent and an fWAR of 0.5. While the Orioles still sit in the basement of the AL East standings with an 8-15 record as of May 3rd, Lopez has been a bright spot for the Orioles and has proven that he can shut the door in crucial moments in the late innings.
A big reason for López’s resurgence in 2022 has been the development of his sinker, which has become a dominant pitch after a few years of development.
Struggles with the Four-Seamer
Early on in his career, López primarily relied on his four-seam fastball as his primary pitch. In 2018 though, in his first season in Kansas City, he started to utilize the sinker more, as it was the first time in his career he utilized the pitch (30.8 percent) more than the traditional four-seamer (20.8 percent).
The adjusted pitch mix seemed to have an effect, as López had some positive moments in 2018 with Kansas City, which included a near no-hitter against the Minnesota Twins on September 9th.
Despite the flip in fastball usage (i.e., sinker in favor of the four-seamer) in 2018, it didn’t really produce a permanent switch until a couple of years later, which can be seen in López’s pitch percentage by season, according to Baseball Savant:
López went back to using his four-seamer primarily in 2019, which was his last full season in the Royals organization as a hybrid starter/reliever. Unfortunately, the change in fastball usage didn’t really help López, as he not only posted an awful ERA (6.33), but he also produced a career-worst -0.2 fWAR that season in 39 appearances for Kansas City.
In fact, López’s four-seamer has not been really beneficial at all for López over his career, even when he made his way to Baltimore after the Royals designated him for assignment after one appearance during the shortened 2020 season.
In the table below, I organized some run value data and other Statcast metrics related to his four-seamer from 2018 to 2021, when he used his four-seamer at a decent rate. His ineffective four-seamer was a primary reason he could not post an ERA under six over that timespan, which can be seen in the data set below.
From 2018 to 2021, here’s what López’s pitch heatmap looked like when he threw his four-seam fastball, according to Baseball Savant:
As one can see in the chart, that’s right in the heart of the strike zone, mostly in the middle or middle glove-side area of the strike zone. MLB hitters are going to do consistent damage on that pitch, especially when it averages 94.4 MPH and a spin rate of 1955.8 over that four-year time period.
In fact, here’s a look at how hitters fared in different areas of the strike zone against his four-seamer from 2018 to 2021 on a wOBA basis, according to Savant:
It didn’t matter where López threw his four-seamer over those four seasons, whether it was in Kansas City or Baltimore. If it was in the strike zone, hitters were crushing the pitch. That clearly is shown by the amount of deep red all over the zone chart above.
Here’s an example of López leaving a 95 MPH four-seamer up to the Yankees’ Aaron Judge in a home game at Camden Yards and Judge crushing it over the right-field wall:
It was the same story back in 2020 as well.
In the clip below, he throws a similar four-seamer in a similar place to Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, and he mashes it 410 feet with an exit velocity of 104.2 MPH:
Without a doubt, López’s four-seamer hasn’t worked for him over his career. As a result, he has only thrown it four times TOTAL this season, as of May 3rd. That roughly constitutes a 2.1 percent usage rate.
And the reason he isn’t throwing it anymore is due to the increased confidence and prowess that he has demonstrated this season with his sinker.
Succeeding With the Sinker
To be fair, López hasn’t always been this successful with his sinker.
From 2018 to 2021, his run value data on his sinker wasn’t much better than his four-seamer over the same time span, which can be inferred from the data table below:
Granted, the “lows” of his sinker haven’t been as bad as the “lows” of his four-seamer (it will be hard to match his +18 run value on his four-seamer in 2019). Nonetheless, the sinker wasn’t exactly a “go-to” pitch for López from 2018 to 2021, when he was profiled as one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball.
Now, let’s take a look at the run value data of all of the pitches that he utilizes this season in the closer role for the Orioles:
The sinker has not only been his most effective pitch on a run-value (-2) as well as K rate (23.8 percent) end, but it has also been his most utilized pitch this season. That is demonstrated in a usage rate of 47.1 percent, which is 25.1 percent higher than the usage on his curveball, his second-most utilized pitch.
A big reason why López has utilized the pitch so frequently is due to a pretty significant jump in velocity on his sinker over the past couple of seasons.
Just a couple of years ago, according to his pitch velocity chart via Baseball Savant, his sinker was only averaging around 93.5 MPH.
Today? His sinker velocity is now averaging 98 MPH. That is not just 4.5 MPH higher than in 2020 but also 2.7 MPH faster than his velocity on the pitch last season.
In addition to the increase in velocity and usage, López has seen gains in spin rate and whiff rate, as well as a decrease in wOBA and launch angle over the past few seasons, which are all positive signs.
To compare, let’s take a look at the progression of how his sinker has looked via clips from the past three seasons.
Here’s how López’s sinker looked back in 2020, as he got Brandon Nimmo of the Mets to go down swinging.
Now, let’s look back at last season and see how his sinker looked as it generated Rougned Odor of the Yankees to swing and miss early in the count.
And lastly, let’s take a look at López’s sinker this year. Notice the difference in movement and speed as it absolutely fools Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton on an 0-2 count.
Based on the clip above, it is easy to see why López’s sinker is generating a CSW rate of 33.3 percent, which ranks him 41st in the league among sinkers, according to Pitcher List data.
And that will make him an intriguing reliever to follow for baseball fans and fantasy baseball managers in the coming months.
Final Thoughts on López
Without a doubt, the velocity jump has probably been due to López’s training to be a reliever this offseason.
Prior to this season, he has flip-flopped between the rotation and bullpen, and that has probably forced him to hold back on velocity in order to preserve stamina.
Now that López has been allowed to fully unleash his stuff over shorter stints, he has seen incredible gains on the mound in 2022, and in a legitimate way, as David Mendelson of Triple Play Fantasy pointed out on April 26th:
Since giving up 2 ERs against MIL on April 13th, Jorge Lopez has now gone 5 straight outings (6.2 IP) without giving up a run, while K’ing 11
Lopez has also recorded 4 saves, & ranked in the top 90% in Avg EV, xERA, HH%, xBA, K%, xwOBA, xSLG, & FB Velo pic.twitter.com/Lwx3xZVXI7
— David Mendelson (@DMendy02) April 26, 2022
López finally seems to be living up to the hype that made him a top prospect in the Brewers system back when he was drafted in 2011. While he hasn’t become an elite starter, as the Brewers envisioned when they drafted him in the second round, he has embraced his role in the late innings in Baltimore, and he seems to be solidified in his spot in the ninth for at least a while.
The 29-year-old is still only rostered in 66 percent of Yahoo leagues and 29 percent of ESPN leagues, according to Fantasy Pros. That is crazy to think about, considering how closers are a premium in this modern game where managers utilize relievers in all kinds of roles.
But Lopez’s break out this year is completely legitimate…
And it will continue to be as long as his sinker remains effective against hitters this season.
Photography by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter)