It was December of 2016, the White Sox teardown was in full force. Gone was staff ace, Chris Sale, and the next shoe to fall was that of locker room and media pariah, Adam Eaton. Three pitching pieces were coming back to the White Sox in exchange for the veteran outfielder.
First was Lucas Giolito, who after a reinvention heading into the 2019 season has emerged as a top of the rotation starter. Next was freshly drafted Dane Dunning (who would later be dealt in a trade that many, for some reason, didn’t understand *smirks*). The third piece of this pitching trifecta was fireballer, Reynaldo Lopez.
Lopez showed flashes of dominance during his brief call-up in 2017 and his first full big-league season in 2018. But behind the superficially fine 3.91 ERA in 2018 was a lot of smoke and mirrors. Those underlying issues manifested themselves during the 2019 season and abbreviated 2020 campaign that caused many to cast him off as an afterthought. Jettisoned to Triple-A Charlotte at the start of the 2021 season, things weren’t going well for ReyLo. He pitched to a 7.62 ERA and was plagued by the control/command issues that became hallmarks of his White Sox tenure.
He re-emerged at the corner of 35th/Shields coming out of the All-Star break to no fanfare and, frankly, a lot of irritation from the fan base that simply has given up on the righty. However, in this cup of coffee with the first-place White Sox, Lopez is making some of us re-evaluate our position on the utility of the young hurler. Has he done enough to carve out a spot for himself with this team going forward into the postseason and beyond?
There has been a notable change in Lopez’s pitch mix since returning to the South Side.
As you can see, Lopez has become almost exclusively a fastball/slider pitcher. The results to this point, in an admittedly small sample size, have been very encouraging. His fastball has a .262 xwOBA to this point, which is by the far the lowest of his career. This could be buoyed by the fact that Lopez’s fastball spin rate (yes, we’re going to talk spin rate here) has picked up almost 100 RPM, over where it has been throughout the course of his career. It is still below average when compared to the rest of the league, but it is closer to league average now than it has ever been.
The added spin coupled with an extra tick of velocity (95.7 MPH on average, which is the highest since Lopez’s first taste of the big leagues in 2016) has helped his four-seamer to be his most effective pitch. He’s getting more swings and misses on this pitch (24.8%) than he has at any point in his career and by a wide margin.
The same can be said of Lopez’s slider. He’s throwing it harder now than ever before (86.3 MPH) and with more spin. The slider has always statistically been his best secondary offering, however, its effectiveness appears to have been neutralized by his use of a curveball and changeup that have, for the most part, been knocked around like a pinball. The decision to focus on a primarily two-pitch offering appears to be paying early dividends for Lopez. In 2021, the slider has a .270 xwOBA against, which plays pretty well.
One of the most frustrating things about Lopez during his White Sox tenure has been his propensity to give away at-bats. Too often we would see him get ahead of hitters 0-2 or 1-2 only to let them back into the at-bat. That hasn’t been the case since coming back from Charlotte.
In fact, Lopez is sporting a career-best 28.0% K rate and a career-low 6.5% BB rate. That elevated K rate is a full 7% higher than his previous career-best in 2019. That is a sizeable jump for a pitcher that many of us criticized for not being able to miss enough bats. The added velocity and spin appear to be causing hitters to be caught “in between” as they like to say.
Another critique of Lopez during his tenure has been that he was prone to lapses in focus. Perhaps being utilized in short bursts where every pitch and every out are at a premium has helped to alleviate this issue. Maybe knowing that he has to go out there and “empty the tank” so to speak, has led Lopez to develop a laser focus we didn’t see previously.
This could be purely anecdotal, of course, but Lopez does look like a different pitcher so far. Sure, there are outings where things haven’t gone well, but by and large, he has shown a usefulness that most of us were not expecting when he returned to Chicago.
Carving Out A Role
If you would’ve told me at the start of the 2021 season that Reynaldo Lopez would be jockeying for a postseason roster spot, I would’ve asked you for whatever type of hallucinogen you were taking. Yet, here we are.
Coming down the stretch of the regular season as the White Sox are entering a “load management” phase with their roster due to a comfortable divisional lead, Lopez is showing he may very well play an important role for this team. His ability to be a swingman could be a key in keeping the most important pitchers of this staff rested and prepared for the grind that awaits this team in October.
He’s already spelled Carlos Rodon during his bout of shoulder fatigue, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the other starters are backed off to an extent to make sure they have their most effective bullets ready for the postseason. Lopez’s ability to provide multiple innings and make spot starts could very well be the difference in this White Sox pitching staff being ready to roll when the bell rings that first week of October. At the same time, Lopez may be positioning himself to get vital outs during the playoffs. Who would’ve thought that coming into the season?
Again, it’s a small sample size but there are some encouraging signs of life from Reynaldo Lopez. At the time of his acquisition, there were plenty of scouts that ultimately thought he was destined for a bullpen role, and they may have been right. In the world of baseball today, having a swingman that can provide multiple innings to save the wear and tear for your most effective arms is immensely valuable. Reynaldo Lopez may well have found his niche and at just the right time.