Every year, there are always several prospects who emerge from obscurity to post majestic statlines in the lower levels of the minor leagues. As such a player strings together an extended period of statistical superiority, questions of his legitimacy as a potential impact player arise–do the numbers merely reflect hollow dominance of fatally flawed, cupcake opponents, or are they a sign of a player emerging as a prospect to watch?
In the immediate aftermath of such a statistical rise, there is always a need for firsthand observation of the player to contextualize both his present excellence and future potential. One player very much in this mold is White Sox pitching prospect Adam Lopez.
“Unheralded” is a word that most certainly applies to Lopez. He was drafted in the 21st round in 2012 as a senior sign out of VMI–he didn’t even make his professional debut until he was almost 22 1/2, and he was merely in the Rookie-Advanced Appalachian League. Lopez threw just 14 1/3 innings in 2012, mostly in the aforementioned APPY circuit, and while he posted a 20/6 K/BB and didn’t allow any home runs, such a miniscule sample by a player of such an advanced age at such a low level failed to register even a blip on the prospect radar entering 2013, even in a White Sox system largely considered to be one of baseball’s thinnest.
Fast forward a year, though, and Lopez is coming off of one of the best statistical campaigns of any minor league pitcher. Among minor league hurlers with at least 90 innings pitched in 2013, Lopez’s 2.14 FIP ranked fourth, behind now-MLB fireballer Danny Salazar (1.96), fast-rising Cubs prospect C.J. Edwards (1.78), and Lopez’s equally unheralded teammate Tony Bucciferro (1.74). His statline oozes excellence across the board: 99 1/3 innings, 84 hits (3 HR), 39 runs (28 earned), 35 walks (8.3%), 129 strikeouts (30.7%), 2.54 ERA, and the aforementioned FIP that clearly encapsulates the overall quality of his performance.
On the other hand, Lopez was 23 for the entire season, pitching in Low-A. As such, even as he was putting up such uniformly intriguing numbers, there was little attention directed to him over the course of the season–again, even in a system that most rank in the bottom third of MLB organizations. A player has to dominate when he is this much older than most of the notable prospects at his level–merely solid performances from 23-year-olds in the South Atlantic League lead to being released as often as they lead to being promoted.
When we see such a pitcher put up great numbers in this sort of context, we tend to think that either a) the player is really a dominant force who has just been overlooked, or b) is just a “trick-pitch” guy surviving on deceptive tactics that will prove ineffective against higher-quality competition. These sorts of extreme pitchers that we imagine are behind the numbers, however, are often just figments of our imaginations. Adam Lopez falls into neither category; he is characterized less by extreme attributes than by a preponderance of solid ones.
The above comprises all of the video of Lopez I recorded this year, which includes several plate appearances from each of the four outings I saw. You don’t have to watch too far in to become familiar with several of his key attributes.
The first of these is size. Lopez is listed at 6’5″ and 221 pounds and has a well-proportioned, athletic frame. Pitchers of his height can sometimes struggle with streamlining their long levers and maintaining a consistent motion, but Lopez has natural athleticism and doesn’t particularly struggle in this area. He has a nice low-effort motion and delivers the ball to the plate with ease, and his high three-quarters arm slot makes good use of his height and allows him to pitch downhill with excellent leverage. His lower half is just a smidge less involved in the motion than I’d like it to be, and he might truly maximize his leverage by adding another inch or two to his stride, but that’s a minor quibble. Further, Lopez’s stutter-step legkick adds some deception to an otherwise fairly standard-issue motion.
The simplicity of Lopez’s delivery allows him to have fairly advanced fastball command, as he does a nice job working the pitch to all four quadrants of the strike zone without frequently straying into the dreaded middle area. In particular, he seems to have a preference for the traditional low-and-away fastball, which is always a nice foundation.
Lopez’s velocity on the fastball was fairly consistent across the four outings, which spanned from late May to late August. He was at his slowest (89-92 mph) in the first, and his fastest (90-94) in the last. Further, he held his velocity all the way through his outings, and showed no ill effects in switching from long relief to the starting rotation–that final outing where he boasted his best velocity was the only one of the four in which he was the starter. So it’s safe to say he averages somewhere between 91 and 92 mph on the pitch, which is sufficient for a righthanded starting pitcher provided he spots the offering effectively. The pitch gets occasional tailing action and isn’t arrow-straight, though the life on it isn’t particularly exceptional. In sum, the fastball isn’t really a plus offering, but it’s certainly good enough to play as an average to solid-average pitch with Lopez’s height, leverage, deception, and control.
While it is a solid pitch, the fastball alone hardly explains Lopez’s success–one does not strike out over 30% of batters in a full-season league while relying near-exclusively on a fairly straight low-90s heater, unless there’s some crazy deception going on. No, the bat-missing credit typically resides with a hurler’s offspeed offerings, and Lopez’s arsenal is not an exception to this rule.
Lopez’s more-used offspeed pitch is his slider, which also experienced a slight velocity uptick over the course of the season (80-83 to 83-85). This is what it looks like at its best:
This particular pitch has a lot going for it. First, it clearly has impressive tilt to the glove side, running away from righthanded hitters. It also has solid depth, and Lopez is able to take advantage of that by getting ground balls with the offering when he isn’t inducing swings and misses. Just as importantly, the pitch combines impressive overall break with good velocity–this particular pitch came in at 83 mph, which is a solid range to reside in for a two-plane breaking pitch. Look at how fooled Josh Elander–who, mind you, hit .318/.381/.516 in the SAL and held his own in High-A late in the year–is on the pitch–his swing seems to indicate he barely even recognized the pitch was on the outer half, let alone well off the outside corner.
While Lopez proved quite adept at getting righthanded batters to chase the slider in that location (and sometimes, locations even further removed from the zone), he also demonstrated confidence in the pitch’s ability to succeed in the zone, like this one to Blake Brown from the same June 15 outing:
Of course, the fact that Lopez is willing to keep the slider on the outside corner to righthanded batters makes the pitch off the corner all that more dangerous of a weapon, because hitters can’t write the pitch off as just a chase offering. Again, Lopez’s ability to command the baseball comes into play here, and he also demonstrates the ability to sequence his pitches and locations in a way that keeps batters guessing. It’s also notable that the slider largely retains its tilt and break when thrown to this location–it doesn’t have to be out of the strike zone to display significant action.
At times, Lopez will get a bit more depth on the ball, like on this pitch to Mookie Betts:
Like any pitch, the exact trajectory of Lopez’s slider has its inconsistencies–some have more tilt than others, and some have more depth than others. The fact that he’s able to ever get this sort of vertical action on a breaking pitch that’s comfortably in the low 80s, though, is still notable.
The problem with Lopez’s slider is that it mostly functions to one side of the plate. Mind you, it has some interesting effects when thrown to that side against lefty batters:
I’m not sure that Lopez is going to be able to break lefty bats like this with regularity–Aneury Tavarez had one of the rawest approaches in the SAL (though he also made the best defensive play I saw all year), and what clearly happened here is that he didn’t pick up the spin on the ball and got jammed by a pitch he didn’t expect to ride in on him–but again, the fact that the pitch can ever produce this sort of outcome is a positive sign–it has enough bite to fool hitters badly and enough velocity to shatter a bat.
Still, the drawback of the pitch is that, regardless of the handedness of the batter, it is far more effective thrown to Lopez’s glove side than his arm side. For the sake of keeping batters guessing, Lopez will sometimes bring the slider in on righties or away from lefties, but as with most sliders, the offering just doesn’t have the same bite on that side of the strike zone, adopting more of a cutter-like trajectory that is easier for hitters to read. This issue keeps the pitch from consistently being a plus offering, and it remains to be seen how consistently Lopez will be able to get batters to chase the pitch at higher levels. Even with this caveat, it is still at least an average pitch–there are plenty of hurlers who have attained big-league success with a slider that only functions effectively to the glove side.
Lopez’s third pitch, his changeup, is probably the less used of his secondary offerings, but in some ways it is the more intriguing pitch. First of all, he uses a modified Vulcan grip for it, which is intriguing–a lot of pitchers with especially sharp changeup action have used variants of the Vulcan grip for the pitch. And Lopez’s changeup might just carry on that tradition. It is a pitch of considerable filth, as is vividly illustrated here:
Poor Levi Hyams has absolutely no chance to hit this pitch. He really doesn’t have much of a chance to lay off of it, either, seeing as a) it’s in a two-strike count, so he has to protect, and b) for about 2/3 of its flight, this pitch seems destined to end up on or near the outside corner, somewhere between knee-high and thigh-high. And then, in the last 30 feet or so, the pitch just explodes out of the strike zone. Few pitches bring the term “missing bats” to life as literally as this. It’s one thing to throw a changeup that has this sort of raw movement, but quite another to have that movement appear so late. And, as with the slider, this isn’t a “soft” changeup, coming in usually in the 81-82 mph range. It’s not exactly the sort of offspeed pitch that is so slow that it gives the batter eons to adjust. Further, it has anywhere from 7-13 mph of speed separation from the fastball, usually 9-10, which really makes the pitch effective when played off the heater. Its dramatic late life, compared to the relatively straight trajectory of the heater, further should allow it to play up. As with the slider, it’s at its best when fading out of the strike zone, like the above pitch to Hyams and this one to Boss Moanaroa:
Unlike the slider, though, the changeup can capably function as just a speed-differential pitch that gets hitters out in front–its downward tumble can make it play effectively even in the middle third of the zone:
What is further interesting about Lopez’s changeup is that, unlike his slider, it still can have bigtime life when thrown across the zone from its break side. That means Lopez can use the fading action on the pitch not only to break it off the outside corner, but also to have it come back over the inside corner:
It’s as hard for Jose Vinicio to pull the trigger on this in-zone pitch as it is for Hyams and Moanaroa to lay off the previous well-outside changeups–those aren’t out of the zone long enough for a batter to stop his bat, and this one isn’t in the zone long enough for a batter to start his bat.
With its turbo fade and sink, Lopez’s changeup is the most consistently impressive of his three pitches. The Vulcan grip is hard to master, and Lopez’s command of the changeup lags behind that of his other two pitches, but it gives him a second dynamic offspeed pitch and a real weapon to lefthanded batters, which is key if his reliever-to-starter transition is to stick.
Beyond the raw movement on his changeup, Lopez doesn’t quite have one standout attribute that inspires raves, but the collection of his physical tools and three-pitch mix also doesn’t have more than minor holes. He’s built for durability and shows the ability to hold his stuff deep into games and seasons. He has a fluid delivery that should allow him to have at least average command while also keeping his injury risk relatively low (by admittedly hazy pitcher standards). He has three pitches that all boast credible velocity and action, a slider that functions as a putaway pitch to righties, and a changeup that functions as a putaway pitch to lefties.
Digging deeper into the statistics, there are also comparatively few red flags. According to StatCorner, Lopez posted an 43.2% groundball rate this year, which isn’t exceptional but isn’t problematic–his leverage and the depth on his offspeed pitches may allow him to inch closer to 50% later in his career. The closest thing to an alarm bell is Lopez’s platoon splits: he walked 12.5% of opposing lefthanded batters, compared to just 5.6% against his fellow righties, and he only struck out 24.3% of southpaws, a full ten percent less than his 34.3% K-rate against righties. Total those up, and you have a glaring split: a 92/15 K/BB against righties as opposed to 37/20 against lefties.
This can be largely attributed to the aforementioned lesser command of the changeup–his primary out-pitch to lefties–than his other two offerings. He was working on the pitch throughout the year and was understandably cautious about bringing it in the strike zone. Seeing as Lopez spent much of the season in a relief role, in many situations he could afford to pitch lefthanders carefully, knowing he had the upper hand against on-deck righthanders. He lowered his overall walk rate from 9.6% as a reliever to 6.2% in his seven starts, which reflected both the necessities of the starting role and increased command and confidence in his pitches as the year wore on.
While lefthanders seemed to have an easier time in the Three True Outcomes game against Lopez than righties did, he didn’t have a large platoon split in the triple-slash sense. Righthanders hit .222/.268/.319, while lefties hit .227/.340/.289. Okay, yes, the 72-point OBP difference is significant, but lefthanders managing just six extra-base hits, none of them homers, in 152 plate appearances is an equally important development that is definitively on the positive side of things for the young hurler. Sure, southpaws can coax a walk every now and then, but they clearly aren’t able to do much with Lopez’s pitches when they are compelled to swing. I would look for Lopez to bring the changeup in the strike zone with more regularity as he fine-tunes his command of the pitch and can trust that a Vulcan aimed for the corner won’t float back over the middle.
While the White Sox’s farm system is generally maligned by many, they do have a fairly impressive and very deep collection of intriguing arms in the lower minors. I saw all sixteen pitchers in the organization who started for their two A-ball affiliates over the course of the 2013 season, and of that group, Lopez was right there with Chris Beck (whom I discussed a few weeks ago) as the arm who has the best chance of slotting into a major league rotation. I’d like to see him skip over High-A and open 2014 in Double-A Birmingham, seeing as he turns 24 in February and needs to be tested against more age-appropriate competition. His balanced skillset points toward his becoming a solid workhorse starter in the future if he can continue to smooth out the rough edges that remain in his game. While it’s easy to ignore Lopez due to his low draft profile and advanced age, his success is not a mere illusion, though it is fair to keep caveats in mind. He should move quickly from here forward, though, and if he greets the upper minors with continued success, expect to see others take notice in short order.
Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.