After making his big league debut in 2015, Jorge Lopez did not appear at all with Milwaukee in 2016 and made just one appearance in 2017. He has now thrown twelve career innings in the big leagues, which has to be considered a disappointment after his 2015 season. We would have expected him to make some kind of impact in either 2016 or 2017, particularly because neither of those teams were expected to compete so the front office didn’t make a huge effort to augment the pitching staff through external acquisitions.
In 2015, Lopez made 24 starts in Double-A and posted a 2.88 DRA. That was just his age-22 season, so even if it seemed like an outlier at the time, his step forward was undoubtedly a positive. He didn’t have to be that type of pitcher to be a valuable big-leaguer; he just needed to consolidate some of the improvement.
He was, however, unable to do that. In 2016, he posted a 5.78 ERA across Double-A and Triple-A, and he did not pitch for the big league club at all. His walk rate shot way up, and he struggled to put hitters away the way he had the previous season. In hindsight, his 2015 stat line contains a clear outlier, specifically, his .259 BABIP against with Biloxi, that explains some of his surface-level improvement. That it regressed down into the mid-.300s last year also explains some of the downturn.
I am #notascout, so I cannot pretend to be an expert on Lopez’s mechanical adjustments. I am sure he was making some adjustments, and I am sure that both he and the organization have been trying to find a way to get him back closer to the 2015 version of himself. However, as 2016 and the first half of 2017 indicate, he was not all that successful.
His 2017 overall numbers look promising, and they are definitely an improvement. Even though his season-long 4.25 ERA doesn’t stand out, his 3.50 DRA and 89 cFIP certainly do. He was able to boost his strikeout rate up to 9.1 K/9, which was the highest full-season mark of his career, and his 3.3 BB/9 was a return to his 2015 self. I am scouting a stat line here, but it certainly looks like Lopez was able to to fine tune his mechanics and regain his control of the strike zone.
The story of the season for Lopez, though, is that he became a reliever partway through the year. His ERA on June 17, the date of his last start, was 5.27. In two-and-a-half months, he was able to cut it by over a run, down to the aforementioned 4.25. His walk rate as a reliever was 2.7 BB/9, while as a starter it was 3.7. He also allowed a .293 SLG against him as a reliever, as compared to a .388 mark while a starter; this could be insignificant, but it could also indicate an ability to better avoid the barrel of a bat in this role.
All postseason long, we have seen the value of starting pitchers becoming valuable relievers. Some teams have converted struggling starters into relievers as a last-ditch effort to save someone’s career, such as the Dodgers with Brandon Morrow. Others have turned to good starters in high-leverage situations when they needed to simply survive to play another day, such as the Red Sox and Astros using Chris Sale and Justin Verlander out of the bullpen in Game 4 of their ALDS.
This is not a foolproof transition, as more anecdotal evidence demonstrates: see Scherzer, Max, in this postseason, or Peralta, Wily, generally. This is also not a one-year trend, however; failed starters have become successful relievers for years, and Lopez will be hoping to be another in that successful line of converts. He has some prospect pedigree, as he was in BP’s Top 101 prior to the 2016 season. That scouting report itself acknowledges the strikeout potential and the command problems, so it seems as if the worst case scenario came true in 2016. Given his role change in 2017, though, Lopez could be an option to eat innings in the middle of the Brewers’ bullpen next season. He is as likely as anyone else to be successful at it, and his strikeout rate provides some hope that he could actually be quite effective.
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