Although the Marlins may be on the wrong side of the win-loss column now and for the rest of the season in in-game action this year, they are very much so on the right side of that equation when it comes to offseason moves and regarding the culture they are hoping to build in the future. One of the biggest figures that speaks to that success is right handed pitcher Pablo Lopez who after an impressive spring training with the big league club, has had an absolutely unprecedented start to his 2018 campaign at the AA level. For his most recent success this past 30 days with the Shrimp, Lopez earns our Prospect Of The Month honors for the month of May.
Lopez is a 6’3”, 200 pound righty who hails out of Cabimas, Venezuela. He’s just the fourth player in history to come from the city on the shoreline of Lake Zulia on the northwestern edge of the country. However, as Pablo explains, his hometown region is rich in baseball tradition which created a great support system during his tenure there. Mileage aside, that support has followed Lopez into his career as an American ballplayer.
“Baseball is very popular in Venezuela and especially where I’m from, so it was always really fun and exciting. I got to represent my state three times for national tournaments. Games would be very exciting and the stadiums would be packed with families of the players supporting and yelling all game long, which was really cool for when you’re 10-12 years old,” Lopez said. “I played with a lot of great players and friends of mine. It’s really special to have such great support from everyone back home. They’ve supported me through everything since the beginning of my career and my entire life and I’m forever grateful for that.“
Of the countless many that have supported Lopez throughout his baseball career through, he says one individual stands head and shoulders above the rest.
“My dad,” Lopez said. “He’s been my mentor, coach, doctor and everything I could have asked for.”
As paramount as his relationship with his family was, Lopez found himself at a crossroads after he was drafted in 2012. After competing in his native country’s affiliated Ball summer league that year, the Mariners pegged him for his North American pro debut the following season. Suddenly on his own still in his teenage years away from the confines of everything he’d ever know and still even somewhat of a stranger to his new nation’s native language, Lopez admits it was a bit of a nervous experience. But with the help of some friendly squadmates as well as some advantageous surroundings, Lopez says he was able to adapt fairly quickly.
“I signed as a 16-year-old and spent my first season back home in the Venezuelan Summer League during 2013. After the season was over, I came to the United States for the first time to participate in the Instructional League when I was 17 years old. It was a completely different experience, not just because of the language barrier (I was lucky enough to know some English back then), but getting acclimated to the culture would take longer! I created great friendships right away with the teammates I was able to meet. They were always willing to help me and the other young players,” Lopez said. “At times it was really hard though, I would get back from the baseball complex to the hotel where I was staying at and I would just hang out in my room not knowing what else to do or where to go! Luckily the hotel was near Bell Road, which had a lot of American restaurants so I was able to eat tons of American food and it was a way to get to know the different culture.”
Despite the mileage, home remained close to Lopez. He was always in regular contact with his family including his father whom Lopez mentioned earlier was able to help him in a medical capacity. That is because Lopez’s dad (as well as Lopez’s mother before her untimely death when Pablo was still just a child) was a medical internist. Pablo’s father’s expertise was beneficial to him when he was forced to miss the entire 2014 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Lopez says his dad was quintessential during that process and in giving him the advice needed to get back into playing condition.
“I injured my elbow in instructional league in 2013 and went through some rehab. After that I was throwing a bullpen and that’s when I injured it again and found out I was going to need Tommy John surgery to repair my UCL. My dad came all the way from Venezuela to Seattle to be with me the day of the surgery. He explained to me the medical process, how the surgery worked, what my body was going to go through and what to look forward to in the future and in the rehabilitation. It was going to be a long process, both mentally and physically.”
According to Lopez, even though he wasn’t able to physically throw a baseball for an entire season, the thought of doing so and strategizing on how to do so in a better capacity never left his mind. In fact, those thoughts filled his mind every day, allowed him to maintain his focus, turn a bad experience into a positive one and ultimately come back stronger than ever, maintaining his effectiveness while staying within the limits of his physical capacity.
“Having the game taken away from you is not fun. You kind of just become a spectator. But I realized there were so many ways for me to keep learning, not just about the game but also about my body. So I spent the following year of rehab getting to know my body to its fullest, learning what’s best for me, how to take care of my body and I also explored the mental aspect of the game,” Lopez said. “I would watch all the games from the stands paying close attention to details, I visualized myself in certain game situations and pictured how I would handle it. I kept trying to learn about pitching and baseball, even though I was not able to play at the time.”
Finally in 2015, Lopez toed the rubber on a state side field for the first time. Immediately, Lopez showed the same effectiveness that allotted him to hold down a 2.56 ERA and 37/11 in his first 66.2 IP in the VSL back home. Over his first 37.1 IP in the US, Lopez tossed to the tune of a 3.13 ERA in 37.1 IP via a 28/6 K/BB and 1.15 WHIP in rookie ball competition for the Arizona League Mariners.
A year later, Lopez got his first call to full season ball with the Clinton Lumberkings and at the same time transitioned back to the starting rotation. In 17 appearances (13 GS), Lopez managed a 2.13 ERA by way of a 0.91 WHIP and 56/9 K/BB. Amongst hurlers with at least 80 IP, Lopez’s WHIP was the best in the league, his ERA was third best and his 6.22 K/BB was second best.
In 2017, Lopez made the jump to A+ Modesto Nuts of the California League. In one of the most hitter friendly leagues in all of Minor League Baseball, Lopez’s ERA ballooned to 5.04 due to a massive .341 BABIP. However, his FIP stood at just 3.36. Still this did not stop the Mariners from flipping Lopez to the Marlins as what was thought to be an add on piece to a trade involving centerpiece Brayan Hernandez and fellow organizational hurlers Brandon Miller and Lukas Schiraldi. For the rest of 2017, Lopez showed his true potential holding down a 2.18 ERA and 32/7 K/BB in 45.1 IP for the Jupiter Hammerheads. Lopez says his jump in production can be attributed to his work done in the offseason concentrating on better releases and more advantageous pitch spotting.
So far this season in his call-up to the AA Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp has done more than not skip a beat — he has taken a massive step forward. It is an impression that began in spring training when Lopez tossed 4.1 scoreless IP in 3 appearances which put him in the conversation to make the Opening Day roster out of camp. Although a freak minor injury Lopez suffered on a line drive come-backer late in the spring campaign ruined that prospect and afforded him to be assigned to AA Jacksonville, Lopez, after making a slightly abbreviated season debut on April 21, was one of the best pitchers in all of Minor League Baseball in the month of May. In 34.2 May innings, Lopez limited his Southern League opposition to just three total runs for a 0.78 ERA via a 0.92 WHIP and .195 BAA. While his BAA and WHIP each placed second in the Southern League, his ERA marked the lowest monthly ERA since August 2017 when Freddy Peralta of Biloxi had a 0.40 in nearly half as many IP (22.1). It is the best May ERA for a Southern Leaguer since Blake Snell held down a 0.72 ERA in the month in the year 2015. What’s more is that Lopez was maintaining a 0.24 ERA until a 6 IP, 2 ER quality start caused his ERA to “balloon” to what it concluded at for the month.
For his success to begin the season and his Marlins tenure this past month, Lopez credits the ideology and strategic way of approaching at bats that the Marlins’ organization maintains throughout the system. He also credits his coaches and teammates who have created a positive environment for him to compete in.
“The Miami Marlins as an organization have created the philosophy of attacking the strike zone, commanding the fastball, pitching to your strengths, and know who you’re facing. That’s been working really well and not just for me but for all of our pitching staff, they all see confident on the mound and it’s really fun to watch them. We also do a lot of studying and we help each other out as pitchers, we are constantly talking and we learn from each other with each game that passes,” Lopez said. “We have a great team with great chemistry and outstanding defense, knowing that you have them behind you making great plays for you gives us great confidence. The catchers have been amazing as well, they work so hard and they’re always helping us to get better.”
Lopez’s calling card is a mid-80’s changeup that he spots at will with great depth and late fading action. He both pitches off of it and pitches into it off of a low 90’s sinker which he commands well in the lower half (proven by his 42% ground ball rate and 95% LOB%) and a mix-in curveball. Above all, by his own admission, Lopez is a weak contact artist who works through hitters quickly en route to making it deep into starts. Although the strikeout numbers have begun to pile up this year due to Lopez’s impeccable control (51/8 K/BB in AA), Lopez says he is remaining focused on sticking to his roots as a to-contact pitcher.
“I’ve always known I’m not a power pitcher with power stuff so being able to throw strikes has been my main focus since the beginning of my career. It has been very important to try and improve it because hitters just keep getting better and better as you move up through the minor leagues, they have better pitch recognition, control of the zone, they put better swings, and they make pitchers pay for their mistakes in the strike zone,” Lopez said. “I try to implement game like situations in my bullpens that allow me to work on controlling the strike zone with my pitches, simulating counts, runners on base, and sequencing.”
That said, although Lopez knows himself and his craft well has his mind set on limiting pitches per AB and contact allowed, he isn’t ruling out a bump in velo as he finishes out his tenure in the minors and begins his MLB career.
“I’m most concerned with throwing strikes, I try to limit free bases as much as I can. As a starter, I have to learn to administrate my energy throughout the baseball game, so I can’t throw as hard as I can with every single pitch,” Lopez said. “There are certain moments or situations where I will put more effort behind it, but then I go back to trying to locate and execute better instead of throwing hard. Right now I’m working and learning on how to use my whole body when I’m pitching and not just relying on my arm to create power. So maybe as I improve at that, there could be room to grow and create more velo.”
Even at present, Lopez has all the tools and then some to succeed as a starter at the MLB level and his phenomenal month of June as well as his solid start in AAA (3.27 ERA in his first two starts) prove that. Pencil this strike thrower who trades nasty whiffs for quick weak contact outs in to make his Marlins debut sometime in the second half of this season.