I think the Braves would have beaten the Marlins Friday night even if Pablo López had been allowed to complete his normal start, but that’s besides the point. The umpires’ absurd decision to eject López compromised the integrity of the game and will have unfortunate consequences that linger throughout the rest of the weekend and likely beyond that.
Crew chief Dan Iassogna explained to a pool reporter postgame that López’s hit by pitch of Ronald Acuña Jr. merited an ejected because of “what type of pitch it is” and “where it hit him.” This was the fifth time that Acuña has been plunked by a Marlins pitcher in a regular season game (plus one other time in the NLDS), and all of the previous instances also involved fastballs. Just like José Ureña in 2018 and Elieser Hernandez in 2019, the López HBP happened on the first pitch of his outing.
Here it is:
And here is López’s reaction:
“We all know Acuña’s a superstar,” López said postgame. “We all know the things he does. You also don’t want to put him on base because he’s a guy that can steal 40, 50 bases a year...That was just a poorly executed sinker.”
Poorly executed, indeed. López is averaging 93.7 miles per hour on his sinker in 2021, but released this one at a full two ticks slower, 91.6 mph. How unusual is that? According to Baseball Savant, this pitch’s velocity was in the bottom 2% of all sinkers/four-seamers that López has thrown this season.
The umpires spent more than a minute on the field discussing the incident before ejecting López, but somehow neglected to consider this important detail? If he had any intent to harm Acuña, why would he do it with such a slow pitch, lessening the severity of the impact and giving the batter an extra split-second to potentially dodge it?
As Tommy Hutton explained on Bally Sports Florida (and the stats back it up), you have to pitch inside to Acuña. He’s one of the best hitters in baseball. If you cater to his preferences and try to battle him without making him protect all parts of the strike zone, he will destroy you.
Anecdotally, I must mention López’s reputation for being exceptionally nice, thoughtful and courteous—the Venezuelan right-hander couldn’t be any further from the archetype of a beanball hothead.
But let’s also consider where López is on his career arc. Unlike Acuña, he does not have a long-term guaranteed contract. This is López’s all-important “platform year” heading into his first year of arbitration eligibility. After setbacks that include Tommy John surgery and multiple shoulder strains, the 25-year-old is on the verge of securing a multi-million-dollar payday for 2022. Those earnings are heavily influenced by compiling innings, wins and strikeouts. An MLB All-Star selection would’ve been helpful as well, and he had an outside shot of squeezing onto the National League roster by tossing a gem in Atlanta.
Regardless of where the Marlins stand in the playoff race, this start mattered to López. He understands that for him to stick in the Marlins rotation for years to come, he will need to overcome his historical struggles at Truist Park. Why would he risk squandering this opportunity to prove himself with a self-sabotaging action on the very first pitch? He wouldn’t.
Pablo López gets ejected after throwing one pitch, a breakdown pic.twitter.com/MQAvlWU5mt— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) July 3, 2021
As I said up top, López’s presence probably wasn’t going to change the outcome on Friday. The Braves haven’t been shut out in a nine-inning game since April 3, and that’s what it would have required for the Marlins to win on a night when their own offense took weak swings and made poor decisions on the basepaths.
However, the instant ejection scrambled Miami’s pitching staff with nine upcoming games over the next nine days. Don Mattingly needed atypical length from Ross Detwiler (3.0 IP on 41 pitches) and Anthony Bender (2.0 IP on 29 pitches). It’s unlikely that either will be available to pitch on Saturday.
Even more problematic, the umpiring crew’s bad interpretation of the hit by pitch reignited the “Acuña is being targeted” narrative that everybody was ready to move on from. And it sets a precedent that batters can get preferential treatment if they act accordingly.