The idea for this piece DID NOT come from a desire to repress the memory of José Rondón’s ninth-inning airmail into the depths of Oakland’s first baseline on Sunday. It just didn’t, I promise.
Markedly more encouraging than that was the performance of Reynaldo López. As much as I’d rather not tell you about his first half, alas, I must. In short, it was gross. I entered the year with high hopes for the 25-year-old, as did many others. Unfortunately, those hopes were quickly dashed by a 6.34 ERA and 1.58 WHIP, along with a measly 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Oh, and if you had any inkling that the underlying advanced stats might be better, they weren’t. His 5.68 xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) left little expectation that things would get better.
To give you a better idea of how poorly López pitched, these are some of the categories that he finished bottom-20 in among qualified pitchers:
- HR/9 (worst in MLB)
- ERA (worst in MLB)
Correct me if I’m wrong, but those are a few categories you’d rather not perform poorly in. Now, it’d be different if we were talking about a guy who was pitching in his first major league season, or if it was someone with mediocre stuff. López fits neither of those classifications. In fact, we’re talking about a former top prospect coming off 188 innings of improved baseball, and one with (at its best) a crackling fastball paired with a couple of emerging secondary pitches.
As much as we, the fans/bloggers/tweeters/obsessors, feel the frustration, I can promise that the guy getting crushed day-in, day-out feels it far worse. Prior to the All-Star break, López sounded off on his subpar performance, vowing that we’d see a different pitcher in the second half:
Through one start, it looks like Reynaldo put his money where his mouth is:
On July 14, it took him a few pitches to find a rhythm (he walked the second batter, Matt Chapman, on just four pitches), but it was evident that López had a plan and was sticking to it. Here a couple things from the righthander’s performance that stood out to me.
Pitching with pace
While there’s no distinct connection between taking less time between pitches and performance, I’ve long been a proponent of guys getting the ball and throwing it. I’ve never claimed to be a pitching guru, but it seems like simple logic that the less time you take in between pitches, the less time there is to think and get into your own head. This seems especially important for a young pitcher like López who might not have the highest of confidence at the moment. Maybe it was me growing up watching Mark Buehrle, but I’ll always value pace when looking at a pitcher.
Right from the jump on Sunday, it looked like Reynaldo was on a mission. Alas, our good friend, FanGraphs, has the numbers to back up my observation. Sunday was indeed López’s quickest work of the year by a wide margin. Prior to this weekend, López had only one start in 2019 with an average pace of less than 24 seconds between each pitch (23.9, on May 13 against Cleveland). With a newfound groove, López pitched at a season-low 22.7 seconds — his quickest pace since June 5, 2018.
What was his line for his July 14 start, you ask? Seven scoreless innings, one hit and four walks. I really debated leaving out the four walks to make that start look even better, but still, mic drop.
Take it with a grain of salt if you wish, but I like a quick-moving pitcher.
Increased fastball velocity and usage
The most talked-about and obvious difference for López on Sunday was the uptick in fastball velocity and usage. He was able to average 97.03 mph on the pitch, the first time he has hit 97+ mph on average since August 19 of last season. It was also just the 10th time he’s done that in 65 career starts, with four coming in his first four career outings.
Even better news is that according to Baseball Savant, López’s peak velocity on the pitch came in the fourth inning, when he hit 98.8 mph on the gun, resulting in a Khris Davis line out. As López becomes more confident in the pitch, hopefully we see that max velo come even later in games, when he really needs to reach back and bring it.
In terms of usage, López was obviously leaning on the pitch from the get-go in order to attack a sneaky-dangerous Oakland Athletics lineup. He used the four-seam fastball 62.37% of the time (fourth-highest of any start this season) in order to generate an 18.97% swing-and-miss rate, his second-best number on the year. Best news of all, a good number of those whiffs were up in the zone, right where he wants to be with the pitch. Generating such a high percentage allowed López to play off the pitch, thus resulting in higher-than-usual swing-and-miss rates with both his slider and changeup.
One start is too soon to declare López a changed man. It is, however, a sight for sore eyes considering his first half and presumed status as the White Sox’s second-best starter behind Carlos Rodón heading into the season. We also must take note of the fact that López didn’t do this against, say, the Detroit Tigers at Guaranteed Rate Field. He did it against a playoff caliber team on the road — that’s what gives me reason to believe that Sunday wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
All it took was one start to make López one of the more intriguing storylines of the second half. With the starting rotation about to get … less barren come 2020, it’s time to put up or shut up. A strong 15+ starts over the remainder of 2019 would go a long way toward quieting the dull roar of Sox fans clamoring for a Reynaldo López bullpen transition.
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