December of 2016 will forever be one of the most significant months in Chicago White Sox history. Right or wrong, it was the time when the organization embarked on a clear path with defined objectives. A full-scale rebuild was met with strong reactions on both sides of the spectrum. One of the byproducts of this decision was Reynaldo Lopez joining the organization following a trade with the Washington Nationals that sent Adam Eaton to the nation’s capital.
Lopez wasn’t the headliner of the deal, but he was a top-100 prospect that was viewed as a significant piece of the White Sox’s future. There was some disagreement about his eventual role at the big league level, whether that would come as a starter or a back-end reliever. Five-plus years since the trade took place, we are potentially getting some clarity.
Power of the Pen
Lopez has fully transitioned to the bullpen for 2022, working exclusively as a reliever minus one “start” serving as the opener against Texas on June 10. To this point, Lopez is having his most effective season as a pitcher at the big league level. When comparing his season numbers to career totals, the variance is jarring.
At the surface level, you can already see there’s a major difference in ReyLo’s performance this year relative to his career norms. Continuing to dig a little deeper, we can see that it’s not smoke and mirrors.
|wOBA||xwOBA||Launch Angle (in degrees)||GB%|
We can see from the data above, that the quality of contact against Lopez has improved drastically versus what we have seen from him over the course of his career. Lopez is inducing a career-best GB% of 48.6%, which is greater than the league average rate of 44.9%. In baseball’s current game, groundballs are death and Lopez has found a way to induce more of them than ever before.
The Right Mix?
So how is Reynaldo Lopez getting these improved results where hitters are beating the ball into the ground more than ever against him? There’s a noticeable shift in his pitch mix and velocity that began last year when Ethan Katz entered the organization, and it has kicked into overdrive here in 2022.
|Four Seam Fastball||51.0%||.302||.301||25.7%|
Some interesting things have changed with Lopez’s pitch utilization this season. He is throwing more breaking balls than at any point in his career to the tune of 43.6%. Conversely, he is using the changeup less frequently than ever before. This new approach has yielded tremendous results for each pitch, minus the curveball, which appears to have been aided by some batted-ball luck.
When examining Reynaldo’s wOBA and xwOBA (which takes into account exit velocity and launch angle data via Statcast) measures, you see an attack currently featuring four pitches that are yielding results better than league average. At the same time, Lopez is recording a career-high Whiff% on each pitch here in 2022. Perhaps the decision to utilize the changeup as more of a “show me” pitch and rely more heavily on breaking stuff is what Lopez needed all along?
Why has there been this significant jump in Reylo’s stuff? Well, Statcast haters, he’s throwing harder and improving his spin. I’m not going to dig deep into the spin rate debate, but know that since Ethan Katz took over there has been a spike in the spin rates for Lopez’s breaking pitches coupled with a decline in spin rate on the changeup that can lead to increased effectiveness.
The velocity uptick is significant, however.
ReyLo is sporting career-best velocity readings on each of his four pitches in 2022. That, coupled with the spin rate improvements, has been a major driver in his success to this point, in my opinion. He is seeing nearly 2 MPH in increases over career norms with his fastball, slider, and changeup, which is rather noteworthy.
A Reasonable Comp?
With Lopez’s new role seemingly defined, who can we look to from the past as a reasonable comp? I suggested this on a recent Sox On Tap broadcast before digging into the data fully, and low and behold, a blind squirrel found a nut. Is this current reliever version of ReyLo akin to former power bullpen arm, Wade Davis? I think so.
The similarity between the two is striking when they shifted to the bullpen. Granted, Lopez has a significantly smaller sample size as a reliever, but the early returns are very encouraging. Wade Davis eventually became one of the most dominant relievers in baseball for a Kansas City Royals team that won back-to-back pennants and a championship in 2015, with Davis closing it out for the championship squad against the Mets.
If the White Sox are able to get similar results out of Lopez going forward, that would be a major boon for a team that has a habit of misallocating resources for relievers in the open market over the last 15 years. This team desperately needs to grow its own relievers so they don’t have to misappropriate funds to the likes of Octavio Dotel, Scott Linebrink, and most recently Kendall Graveman and Joe Kelly.
Taking a former top starting prospect and turning him into a reliable back-end reliever, while not the desired outcome, is still extremely valuable.
Overall: A Positive Development
There haven’t been a ton of bright spots in the first half for the 2022 Chicago White Sox, but Reynaldo Lopez’s emergence as a trusted reliever is one of them. He is positioning himself for higher leverage opportunities with each quality outing.
If his career trajectory continues, we could be seeing the emergence of the Sox’s next closer when Liam Hendriks’ contract comes to an end. Royals fans saw a similar development with Wade Davis, and if Lopez could turn into a similar pitcher, the White Sox will be better able to use their resources in coming years.
It’s been a turbulent and winding road for Lopez since joining the Sox organization. But it appears he has finally found his place in the bullpen. Continued improvement from the fireballing righty will only lead to a greater role for this team in years to come, and that would be a rare organizational win.
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