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Carry On, Stirrup Son

A Pablo López appreciation post, plus musings on the sad state of the Miami Marlins.

Miami Marlins starting pitcher Pablo Lopez (49) returns to the dugout after the first inning against the New York Mets at loanDepot Park. Photo by Sam Navarro/USA TODAY Sports

If Pablo López was traded by the deadline, I wanted to write something to honor his time in Miami. I came up with a clever title—carry on, stirrup son—to honor the pitcher I’ve come to love watching every fifth day. Although they did not trade the 26-year-old righthander, I’m a firm believer in recognizing and appreciating the good things we have before they’re gone. So this isn’t a goodbye, just a welcome back.

On Tuesday night, López returned to his primary fastball-changeup pitch mix. He looked like his vintage self, throwing six shutout innings against the Oakland A’s. He allowed four hits, walked two, and struck out five. Here’s to hoping López can finish the 2022 strong.

Staying Healthy

When I wrote his 2022 series preview for Fish Stripes, I mentioned López having a healthy season would be critical. López came into the year with 111 13 innings pitched as his career high. That was back in 2019, the season in which he missed more than a month because of a right shoulder strain.

López made all of his starts in the wonky, COVID-shortened 2020 season and was pitching well in 2021 until sustaining a right rotator cuff strain at the beginning of July. The injury sidelined him for nearly all of the second half of the season. He finished the 2021 season with just a tick over 100 innings pitched.

With health being of the two things I wanted to watch for this season, López has quenched all the concerns I had about durability. After Tuesday night’s game, López has pitched 140 innings in 25 starts this season. We still have a few weeks left in the season, so it’s important that he’s able to continue pitching well and pitching healthy.

Developing a Third Pitch

The other thing I’ve been keeping tabs on with López this season is his pitch mix. As we’ve seen over the past few seasons, López has solidified himself as a two-pitch pitcher. In 2020, 62.1% of the pitches he threw were a fastball or changeup. Those numbers have only increased over the past two seasons: 64.3% in 2021 and 72.3% in 2022.

This lack of a third pitch is something I touched on in López’s 2022 season preview. We saw him use his sinker more often in spring training, even more so than his changeup in two of his three spring starts. It’s a pitch he employed generously early in his career, but it wasn’t particularly successful: opposing batters had a batting average above .300 against his sinker in three of López’s first four seasons.

The other candidates for a potential third pitch are the curveball and cutter. López featured the curveball heavily in 2018 (20.3%) and 2019 (16.8%), but steered away from it in recent seasons. It’s easy to understand why: López’s curveball had a +7 run value in 2019, by far his worst pitch. In contrast, the cutter is something he debuted in 2020 that fared pretty well in the first two seasons. This year, however, it’s taken a step back.

At this point in the season, López still has not solidified a reliable third pitch. When I think of how he’s performed this season, it really feels like we’ve been watching two different pitchers. There was the NL Pitcher of the Month Award in April and a few fantastic starts in May, but things began to go south in June. If we look at his pitch usage in his first 12 starts compared to his most recent 12 starts, there are some notable differences.

Pablo López’s Pitch Usage This Season

Pitch April 9-June 10 June 17-August 17
Pitch April 9-June 10 June 17-August 17
Fastball 35.0% 38.8%
Changeup 37.7% 33.0%
Cutter 15.8% 9.2%
Sinker 7.8% 8.5%
Curveball 3.7% 10.4%

In López’s first 12 starts this season, he threw his fastball or changeup just over 70% of the time. The rest of the time, batters usually saw the cutter or sinker. Very rarely, López would mix in a curveball. But lately, as he’s using his curveball more and changeup less, the results have been less than stellar.

Pablo López First 12 vs. Last 12 Games

April 9-June 10 12 70.1 53 18 19 72 2.30 1.02 31.1%
June 17-August 17 12 63.2 64 39 21 59 5.51 1.34 28.7%

When I mentioned researching this article to our very own Ely Sussman, I told him I didn’t understand López and the Marlins’ decision to trade changeup for curveball usage. He pointed me to this video of López talking about his start on July 26.

“The more you throw it,” he says about the curveball, “the more comfortable you are with it.” 14% of his pitches that day were curveballs, and the three swings he induced on the pitch were all whiffed at. This was an outing against the Cincinnati Reds in which López pitched seven innings, allowing one run on two hits, no walks, and 11 strikeouts.

While I understand the mindset, I’m still curious why the decision to throw more breaking balls happened in mid-July. Around this time, the Marlins were just a few games under .500 and technically still in the NL Wild Card race. The team seemed very optimistic about their chance to play meaningful games down the stretch. On July 30, GM Kim Ng said the front office didn’t see the Marlins as a “clear buyer or clear seller.” So if they were pondering going for it, why tinker with something that’s going well?

To be fair, this isn’t a knock on López. We now know that these games mean nothing. He’s thrown his curveball nearly 16% of the time since that July 26 game in Cincinnati, and his changeup usage is just under 30%. If there’s ever a time to work on another pitch in-season, now would be the time.

Key decision-makers on the Marlins say one thing and do another. The team’s leadership is always saying they’re committed to fielding a competitive team and winning games, but then consistently do things that prove otherwise—tinkering with a pitch that has historically been pretty bad around the make-or-break point of the season, consistently slotting Avisaíl García in the cleanup spot despite being one of the worst hitters in all of baseball, or giving significant playing time to Willians Astudillo, Billy Hamilton, and Bryan De La Cruz.

It should go without saying, but these aren’t things winning organizations do. It’s getting more and more difficult to tune in every night. I find myself wondering which version of the Marlins are worse: a team that makes it clear they have no intention of winning, or one that swears they do, just to deliver this frustrating 2022 season.