Last week, I talked about a few young players who teams should be itching to sign to long-term contracts. Due to public demand, another set of projections is on the way, but I’ll admit I intentionally omitted one pitcher, Pablo Lópezfrom the first look because I wanted more space to talk about him.
Unlike a lot of pitchers the Marlins have accumulated during their various fire sales, López was not a highly touted arm in the minors. Prior to 2017 – the season during which he and three other players were traded by the Mariners to the Marlins for reliever David Phelps – he was basically a non-entity among prospect-watchers. He did not receive an official ZiPS projection that year, but if he had, it would have been similar to the projection he received before the 2018 season, which essentially saw him as a below-average innings-eater at his peak. At no time did he rank on a ZiPS Top 100 prospect list.
His first couple of campaigns with the Marlins featured decidedly mixed results. While López was essentially a league-average pitcher thanks to exit velocities that ranked towards the top of the league (the good kind of top of the league), he lacked the ability to finish off batters. From 2018-19, he basically threw four pitches: a relatively straight fastball, a sinker, a curve, and a changeup. None of them were whiff-makers, and none of them even had a 20% put-away rate, resulting in a mediocre 7.5 K / 9 combined over those two seasons.
Things clicked for López during the shortened 2020 season. He picked up a cutter before the season and started to de-emphasize his curve, which was never a key part of his repertoire. He also used his changeup – an 87 mph pitch with impressive fade and drop akin to the nastiest circle changes, and the nastiest offering in his repertoire – more aggressively. Our own David Laurila talked with López a couple of years ago about the development of his changeup:
“I watched [Johan Santana and Félix Hernández], yes. I always liked Johan’s better, because he was slower. King Felix’s was disgusting because he had so much movement, but I thought his was too fast. I did not throw as hard as he does, so I could not have such a fast changeup. That’s why I tried to pay more attention to Johan. The thing that always amazed me was that you could never tell he was throwing a changeup until it was slower. His arm action was the same. His mechanics were the same. Being able to sell it that way is what makes a changeup so successful. That’s something I try to emulate. ”
It’s interesting to see the contrast between López and another young pitcher breaking out due to a nasty changeup, Shane McClanahan. Whereas McClanahan has never thrown a changeup in a platoon-advantaged situation, it quickly became López’s most-used pitch with a platoon advantage starting in 2020. In a way, his breakout is similar to that of Kevin Gausman‘s. Like Gausman, López had an off-speed pitch with filthy movement but breaking pitches too indifferent to tempt right-handed hitters. And like Gausman, he has shifted heavily towards using that change in situations where many other pitchers turn to their curve or slider. His nine-strikeout game against the Cardinals, with five righties getting punched out from low-and-inside changeups, is one of the best showcases of this:
However he got there, the improvement has been significant. Among National League starters, López has been a little worse than that Zack Wheeler spirit Max Friedand the equal of Clayton Kershaw and Gausman since the start of the 2020 season:
Best ERA- by National League Starters, 2020-22
Despite his performance, it seems like he’s still been largely overlooked among Marlins pitchers. López can dial his fastball up to 95-97 mph when he needs to, but Sandy Alcantara’s is hotter, and he can reach for it a lot more often. Jesus Luzardo‘s explosive stuff is more highlight friendly. And Miami always seems to have a couple of elite prospects who grab much of the remaining ink. When the All-Star teams were named last year, there were only two starting NL pitchers who missed the cut and had more WAR than López: Kershaw and Wade Miley. Then, to add injury to insult, shoulder pain ended his season in July, with the exception of a lone October appearance.
In just 143 depth-chart projected innings coming into 2021, ZiPS anticipated a 2.7 WAR season from López (Steamer and THE BAT liked him just as much). Unsurprisingly, ZiPS likes him even more after his hot start to 2022:
ZiPS Projection – Pablo Lopez
Even by 2022 standards, that isn’t the innings volume typical of an ace, as ZiPS wants to see him get through a full season healthy. But those are rate stats you associate with No. 1 starters, with his projected ERA + about matching the average season from Justin Verlander (130), Roy Halladay (131) or Gerrit Cole (129). While López’s strikeout rate has improved compared to his first two seasons in the majors, it’s still not his strongest point, and with his improved contact and swing rates, ZiPS sees him as still having additional upside, similar to how it felt about Dylan Cease following his 2021 breakout season.
López is definitely due for some hardware, and 2022 will hopefully not give him his first All-Star appearance. He’s moved up to 17th in ZiPS in rest-of-career value among pitchers, and among pitchers who have never made an All-Star team or received any Cy Young or Rookie of the Year votes, his 31.6 projected WAR ranks behind only Logan Webb (38.8) and Cease (35.4). ZiPS suggests the Marlins pitch a six-year, $ 111 million extension for López, covering his last two years of arbitration and four free agent years. By the end of the deal, that projection would have him surpassing Josh Johnsonthe franchise’s all-time leader with 21.4 pitching WAR, though López will have to battle Alcantara for that title, of course.
The Marlins like to claim they’ve changed. We saw it when they demanded a taxpayer-funded stadium, then had a fire sale. We saw it when they signed Giancarlo Stanton spirit Christian Yelich to extensions, then traded both. We saw it when they brought in Derek Jeter as the franchise’s public face, only to have him later resign; according to CC SabathiaJeter decided to leave due to ownership’s unwillingness to invest in the team. At this point, it would take a monumental, long-term, good-faith effort for the franchise to alter its reputation as one of baseball’s cheapskates, a club that exists mainly through the suffering of wealthier teams. Signing a key contributor like López and then not trading him in a fire sale two years down the road would be a great place to start, should the Miami Marlins want to actually change.