Brewers prospect Jorge Lopez’s tale is nearly famous by now: the righty surged onto the scene in 2015 by putting together several aspects of his game into a complete package that even saw a jump from Class-AA Biloxi to Milwaukee, only to lose his mechanics and command at Class-AAA Colorado Springs in 2016. Lopez reset in Biloxi once again, spent time in the club’s instructional league, and is shredding Puerto Rican Winter Ball to the tune of 34.7 innings, 32 K / 13 BB / 0 HR, and six runs allowed in nine starts. From this performance one can raise a conundrum over where Lopez should start the 2017 season, but there really is not much of a debate: if Lopez’s mechanics are indeed in order, and his stuff continues to sizzle, the righty should forego the minors and begin the 2017 season in the back of the Brewers rotation.
One common complaint about such a move is that the Brewers would begin Lopez’s service time clock by starting him in the MLB in 2017. This is a false complaint, however, for several reasons: (1) the respective career arcs from Taylor Jungmann to Tyler Thornburg to Wily Peralta should show that there is no truly “linear” service clock for an MLB pitcher. Should Lopez begin the season in the MLB, that does not mean that he will not need a stint in the minors sometime within the next three years, and that certainly does not mean that he will be more or less likely to face an injury that renders service time debates moot. (2) If keeping Lopez’s mechanics in order means placing him on thew MLB roster, that step could make it more likely that Lopez reaches his ceiling, or create a version of his career that looks much more promising than a gamble with Colorado Springs or Biloxi once more. (3) Frankly, what no one ever says, if the Brewers start Lopez’s service clock, and he eventually becomes a pitcher that can test free agency, there is a very good chance that he will be worth the pricetag.
The Baseball Reference Play Index can be helpful with point (3). In the expansion era (1961-present), there are approximately 4,843 MLB players that have worked more than five innings. Pushing that barrier to 200 innings, there are only 2,223 MLB players (or so) that have reached that threshold. By 400 innings, the number of pitchers plummets, especially considering starting pitchers alone. If you’re an expansion era MLB pitcher that has started in 90 percent of your games, and reached 400 innings, you join a group of roughly 310 pitchers.
From there, let’s take a look at expansion era pitching numbers divided by percentage of games started and ratio of strikeouts to walks:
|Criteria||K/BB||IP||Low ERA+||High ERA+||Number of Players|
|90% SP||<=1.99||520+||K. Davies (78)||J. Palmer (125)||116|
|90% SP||>=2.00||520+||R. Nolasco (90)||C. Kershaw (159)||171|
|50% SP||<=1.99||520+||K. Jarvis (73)||J. Palmer (125)||443|
|50% SP||>=2.00||520+||A. Sonnanstine (82)||C. Kershaw (159)||305|
|90% SP||No Min||400+||K. Davies (78)||C. Kershaw (159)||310|
|50% SP||No Min||400+||J. Hook (70)||C. Kershaw (159)||827|
|50% SP||No Min||200+||S. O’Sullivan (68)||C. Kershaw (159)||985|
|No Min||<=1.99||520+||M. Kekich (73)||B. Ziegler (168)||774|
|No Min||>=2.00||520+||A. Sonnanstine (82)||M. Rivera (205)||503|
|No Min||No Min||520+||M. Kekich (73)||M. Rivera (205)||1311|
|No Min||No Min||200+||J. Stephenson (63)||C. Kimbrel (210)||2223|
|No Min||No Min||5+||S. Dixon (16)||D. Hart (917)||4843|
Even if a pitcher works in the back of the rotation, reaching 520 innings while starting the vast majority of games and posting less-than-ideal K/BB ratios produces rare company. Reaching 520 innings as a starting pitcher with a K/BB ratio above 2.00 produces a class of expansion era pitchers everyone could recite, from Ricky Nolasco to Wily Peralta to Yovani Gallardo to Sandy Koufax to CC Sabathia and Jeff D’Amico and Clayton Kershaw, just to name a few.
The point is simple, and the path for Lopez is clear: should Lopez even reach Wily Peralta’s status of 520+ innings with 2.00 K / BB (which Peralta surpassed in 2016), the righty will join a prime group of innings eaters, middle rotation arms, and aces within the expansion era. Thus, the service clock will mean nothing, especially for an organization that has sat on $80 million in revenue between 2016-2017 and is primed to produce low payrolls for the foreseeable future. Doubling down on this point, the Brewers are not going to win a Championship by practicing austerity; they are going to win a Championship by fielding the best possible team in terms of opportunity cost and production. If the opportunity cost of placing Lopez in the minors once again is the righty losing his mechanics, the easy decision is to place Lopez in the opening day rotation.