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What’s different for Pablo López in 2020?

The Venezuelan righty has shoved over his first four starts in 2020. Let’s attempt to explain the breakout.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

As Don Mattingly recently said, Pablo López has been the ace of the Marlins pitching staff. He’s been lights out during the 2020 season for an injury-depleted team that desperately needs him to perform. The 24-year-old has shown steady improvement on the mound.

After four starts, López is 2-1 with a 2.42 ERA, five walks, and 24 strikeouts across 22 13 innings. There are reasons to believe the adjustments responsible for this success can be sustained long term.

But specifically, what has been different for Pablo?

You gotta love his ratios

López went from striking out less than one batter per inning to punching out 9.67 per nine this year. At the same time, he’s giving up fewer walks than ever (2.01 BB/9). In fact, he’s struck out 26.1% of his opponents, a mark that he’s raised every year since his debut in the bigs.

Fish Stripes original GIF

Another factor fueling the righty’s performance is that he’s not allowing home runs. After giving up 1.21 HR/9 in 2019, he’s only been taken deep once during the 2020 campaign: a solo shot by Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud on August 14.

This is happening, in part, because he’s inducing ground balls at a 60.3% rate (it was 47.6% last year) and went from inducing fly balls in 31.2% of times to 20.6%. Also, his average exit velocity against is better than 90 percent of the league (84.5 mph) and his opponents’ launch angle decreased from 10º to 4.5º.

Just a better pitcher now

When I went deeply on Pablo’s stats, I was a bit surprised to see a change in his Z-Swing% (FanGraphs’ name for swings at pitches in the strike zone) and his Z-Contact%. The former is now 77.5%, almost 10% higher than last year (69.4%). But somehow the latter is down to 78.5%, which means that even though batters are going after pitches in the zone more often, somehow they are missing more times.

Also, when you take a look at his whiff and swinging strikes ration, you’ll see an improvement there as well. After producing a 10.2 SwStr% last year, he’s now at 14.7%, while his whiff percentage went from 23.6% to 30.4%.

One of the most interesting aspects of López’s statistics is that they’re being supported by his FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching), which is at 2.28, comparable to his 2.42 ERA. The only qualified starter who has posted a better FIP while pitching in the east this season—facing AL East and NL East teams—is two-time defending NL Cy Young award winner Jacob deGrom.

Even though this is a small sample size, Pablo López seems to be improving and becoming a better pitcher than the one he was in 2018 and 2019. And when you’re only 24 years old as he is and under club control for another half-decade, that is a good reason to have everyone around your team excited.

López makes his fifth start of the campaign versus the Nationals on Monday night.