The Top 222 Players of 2021: No. 190, Pablo López

This morning, I sent the latest installment of my season-preview project to subscribers, counting down the top 222 players of the coming year. Here’s the entry for No. 190, Marlins starter Pablo López. To get the whole list delivered to your email inbox, click the ‘Buy Now’ button on your page. It’s just $11.11 for a full year of coverage.

190. Pablo López, RHP, Miami Marlins: When he’s been healthy, López has quietly been better than you’ve realized for a few years. Last year, the 25-year-old Venezuelan’s production caught up to what you see when you watch him, which is a mid-rotation starter with upside. Unlike so many players, he threw harder than ever in 2020, and specifically, he finished the year sitting 95 with his fastball. That heater is a little bit straight, and he has better control than command of it, but it works. Throwing in the mid-90s has given him some margin for error, despite a low spin rate, but I think some of the secret also lies in his above-average extension. The fastball really gets on top of you, because of how much ground he covers coming down the mound. He’s a tall guy, and he pitches that way.

He did two new things last year that especially intrigue me, beyond throwing harder. Firstly, he ratcheted his changeup usage against right-handed batters way up. A good right-on-right changeup is a thing of beauty, but you have to command that pitch really well to avoid running into barrels. López can do that, and because of his lack of big spin rates, he’s always been fastball-changeup heavy anyway. Last year, he found the confidence to throw the change 30 percent of the time against fellow righties, and it was devastating. 

The other big development of 2020 was that López added a cutter. That pitch can be a good balm to a pitcher who doesn’t have good feel for a curve or slider, but it was especially important that he add this pitch. Despite the great changeup, he’s always struggled against lefties, and one major reason has been his inability to get inside on them. The cutter started solving that problem last season. It’s a really hard cutter, too, over 90 miles per hour, which doesn’t give hitters much time once they realize it’s not the changeup or the straight fastball, but a pitch coming straight for their hands.I like everything about López, but I especially like the story of how the Marlins acquired him. The Mariners briefly experimented, several years ago, with trading extremely young, far-away prospects for role players on the iterations of that team they hoped would end their playoff drought. Jerry Dipoto saw it as a way to lower the price tag on players on whom he couldn’t afford to spend major money or immediately impactful talent. One package of such players went to the Brewers, for Adam Lind. One went to the Marlins, for David Phelps. López was in the Phelps deal, and Freddy Peralta was in the Lind one. The moral is probably not that you should desperately avoid trading newly signed Latinx teenagers, though as scouting in that part of the world continues to get better and more thorough, it might be time to stop thinking of players traded at that career stage as fungible and “five years away”. Fernando Tatís, Jr. is another datum in that discussion, of course. Still, the main moral of the story is: don’t trade guys like that for Adam Lind and David Phelps. The Padres won’t feel that badly if two of the exceptionally young players they traded to the Cubs blossom into productive players over time, because the guy they got for them is Yu Darvish. Trade López for Phelps, though, and you’re risking much more regret.

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