Those who are familiar with my presence on SSS during the 2019 season are aware I’ve been a pretty ardent defender of Reynaldo López.
That’s not to say I’ve necessarily tried to defend his overall performance during the season, as I think there’s no denying it was anything but atrocious overall (although FanGraphs pegged him with a rather generous 2.3 fWAR). As a result, there has been a lot of chatter in offseason plans, blogs, and podcasts about ReyLo’s role on the team moving forward.
Most people seem to have already relegated him to bullpen duty, which makes sense considering he’s kinda like a Thyago Vieira who can actually throw strikes, which would be a late-inning talent. Others have included him in trade proposals, which strikes me as selling low on his talent and taking away from the depth the White Sox have accumulated.
Furthermore, he is the only pitcher on the 2020 roster who threw more than 180 innings last season (Keuchel was on a 180 innings pace, but obviously missed the mark due to his late start), so as bad as López’s overall production was, he was able to hang in there and chew through some innings regardless.
López’s struggles were frustrating for me to watch, as he was a player I’d expected to have a breakout season. So what went wrong, can it be fixed, and how long a leash should he get? Let’s examine.
His peripherals actually improved
This is perhaps the greatest statistical oddity of López’s 2019 season. López had a pretty solid year in 2018 despite peripherals which suggested he wasn’t as good as his results. While López didn’t necessarily move said numbers into elite territory, he did improve on a lot of them, seeing a 2.0% increase in his K rate, a 1.4% decrease in his BB rate, and a 2.6% increase in his swinging-strike rate. His stuff didn’t really change much — elite velocity with bottom-of-the-scale spin rates — but 2019 represented the best K/BB ratio of his career by a rather significant margin.
So how is it López was generating more of those precious strikeouts, giving up fewer dreaded walks, but his ERA and FIP still shot through the roof?
Simple explanation: Every time hitters made contact, they were murdering the ball. López has always been a fly ball pitcher, which is dangerous enough territory to live in when combined with the small-ish dimensions of GRF. While López didn’t pay much of a price for this the preceding two seasons, the dam finally burst: He gave up 10 more home runs in 4 ⅔ fewer innings, his extra-base hit percentage rose a disturbing 2.2%, and his BABIP allowed skyrocketed by a whopping 56 points. But there were two factors involved here beyond his control.
First, the bouncy ball used throughout MLB was bound to affect a player like López (who rolls out elite velocity with a fly ball profile) more than most other pitchers. If the ball returns to some semblance of normalcy in 2020, we can probably expect ReyLo’s results to improve dramatically.
Second, despite the regular presence of Adam Engel in center field, the White Sox rolled out one of the worst outfield defenses in the league. Eloy Jiménez, Charlie Tilson, Ryan Cordell, Jon Jay, Daniel Palka, and Nicky Delmonico combined for a horrendous -3.9 dWAR per Baseball-Reference. Assuming at least some improvement from Jiménez (it would be hard for him to be worse) and some semblance of competent defense from the likes of Nomar Mazara, Luis Robert, and the occasional Engel appearance, López’s XBH% and BABIP allowed should also plummet.
The talent is there — it just doesn’t show often enough
Few pitchers performed in the sorts of extremes that López did in 2019. If he took the mound with his stuff working, he was anywhere from good to great. If it wasn’t, well, you’d probably know right away. In 11 of his starts (a third of his season), López threw a 61 game score or better. He allowed no more than two earned runs in any of those games, and finished at least six innings in all but one (a five-inning no-hitter where he was pulled early due to stomach flu). Unfortunately, on the other side of the ledger, López had 13 games with a game score of less than 40 — basically Dylan Covey numbers. While this makes for an unsightly overall line, the top part of the ledger is what separates López from the likes of a Covey, (who didn’t have a single game score better than 58 in 2019) and makes him at least a serviceable (if not necessarily desirable) back-end starter. But the good results are there often enough and are strong enough to believe that it could be possible for him to balance his performances more on the top end and less on the bottom end, which would make for a solid rotation presence.
Who framed Reylo Rabbit?
Everybody applauded the signing of Yasmani Grandal in large part because he is one of the best hitting catchers in the game. What is debated is how much his framing ability will change the fortunes of the White Sox pitching staff.
Well, in the case of López, fortunes should change quite a bit. James McCann, Welington Castillo, and the assortment of other catchers the White Sox rolled out in 2019 absolutely hemorrhaged strikes throughout the season, by far posting the worst framing numbers in the league. While there is disagreement as to the overall true effect of catcher framing, we can all agree that “by far the worst in the league” is not ideal by any means. Per FanGraphs, the White Sox had three of the six pitchers most negatively affected by framing. And guess who was at the top (bottom?) of that list? Yuuuuuuuuuuuup.
By contrast, the pitchers who most benefited from catcher framing were on Grandal’s Milwaukee Brewers, and this is not a coincidence. Even if Grandal provides league average framing for López (assuming Grandal is behind the plate for most of López’s starts), it will be a huge improvement. If he gives López the sort of boost Zach Davies or Brandon Woodruff enjoyed, we’re talking about a whole different pitcher. Strikes framed into balls can be devastating, especially to a young and still developing pitcher like López. Innings get extended unnecessarily, and worse, if López loses confidence in the edges of the strike zone he pounds the middle of it, which is not a great strategy when you’re throwing high-90s heat with minimal movement. If Grandal can give him more room to work his fastball and help increase his confidence in his changeup (which has flashed plus in the best of times), López can be a 200-inning workhorse with at least a league average ERA.
Adversity brings growth
As stated before, López’s peripherals and lack of movement on pitches somewhat foretold the potential for serious regression in 2019. While external factors have hurt him some, it is not unreasonable to assume that a lot of his struggles were simply the law of averages catching up with him. I see some of this as López being a victim of his own success; what he’d been doing was working, so why make any major changes? You can’t teach velocity, but you can teach grips, deliveries, and release points. ReyLo is more of an emotional pitcher than a cerebral pitcher (feel free to disagree), and reaching deep down for velocity always had been enough in his past. Ideally, the way hitters teed off on him last season has motivated him to work on improving his arsenal in the offseason. Adding even the slightest bit of spin to his fastball could have incredible results, and trusting in his changeup, which runs anywhere from 11-14 mph slower than his fastball, is potentially a huge area for improvement.
I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture for López’s prospects in 2020. He’s going to be under the gun, and he has to know that it’s time to put up or shut up. This will be his third full major league season, and there will soon be a queue of pitchers returning from injury and ascending from the minors, itching for a spot in the rotation. If López doesn’t come out of the gate dealing, or at least outperforming somebody like Dylan Cease or Gio González, he has to know that his days as a starter will be numbered. He’s one of the few players with whom Ricky Renteria seems to be running out of patience with, and how he responds to this pressure could play a major role in how competitive this team is for the next several seasons.
I’ve always been impressed by López’s tenacity on the mound; he’s shown himself to be a fiery competitor, and if he can bring that tenacity to his work off the mound as much as on it, I’d bet on him being a mid-rotation mainstay for several years alongside Dallas Keuchel, with basically the exact opposite pitching style.