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.

The Top 222 Players of 2021: No. 198, Eric Hosmer

This morning, I sent players 200-191 on my countdown of the top 222 players of the coming season to subscribers’ inboxes. Here’s the entry for No. 198, Eric Hosmer. If you want access to the full list, most of which is yet to come between now and Opening Day, just click the ‘Buy Now’ button on your page.

198. Eric Hosmer, 1B, San Diego Padres: One layer of the story is pretty simple, and has been breezily, frequently told over the last eight months. Here are Hosmer’s average launch angles on batted balls for the last four seasons, starting in 2017 and coming forward: 3.9, -1.5, 2.1, 8.7. The pattern for Sweet Spot percentage follows a similar pattern. (I’ll cite Sweet Spot percentage fairly often here, despite its flaws. It’s Baseball Savant’s reported share of batted balls leaving the lumber within the highest-value band of launch angles, from about 8 to 32 degrees. I’d quibble with those endpoints, and might like to see them move according to individual characteristics of the player, but it’s a good basic stat to measure the ability to hit lofted line drives. Keep it in mind.)

Hosmer hasn’t become a Launch Angle Guy, by any means. Both the average launch angle and the Sweet Spot percentage remain below- or fringe-average. He hits the ball hard, though, so even a modest improvement in the trajectory of his contact makes a substantial difference. He made a real set of changes in his setup and swing that led to considerably more power. He now holds his hands farther from his body before starting to swing, then brings them back behind him as he loads, and the first movement of the barrel of his bat is now backward, which creates an upward path into the hitting zone. It’s a slightly longer swing than his old one, but because he has so much better timing and is on plane with the pitches he’s thrown, he made more contact last year, in addition to elevating more. Bat speed was never his problem.

He’s also taking more of what I’m thinking of as a front-loaded approach to plate appearances. A number of hitters have adopted this strategy recently, and it’s a sound one for the modern game. Hosmer is more aggressive early in the count than he used to be, but more selective than he used to be as at-bats run deep. He’s still a very aggressive hitter, and his walk rates the last two seasons have been unimpressive, but if this approach keeps yielding power and limiting his strikeouts, he doesn’t need to walk all that often to be valuable.

The Top 222 Players of 2021: No. 208, Cristian Pache

As I count down to Opening Day by counting down my top 222 players of the coming season, I’ll continue to share one entry from each installment as a taster. If you’re curious about the rest of the list, just sign up using the ‘Buy Now’ button on your page. It’ll be at the righthand side on desktops and laptops, and the bottom of the page on mobile devices.

Today, one of the rookies about whom I’m most excited, and whom I wanted to rank even higher.

208. Cristian Pache, CF, Atlanta: I’m forcing myself to be conservative here. I badly want to send Pache soaring up this list, but I have to respect the real doubts about the extent to which he will hit right away. He certainly showed that he can attack even elite pitching in last year’s NLCS, and any fears that he’d have the bat knocked out of his hands in the majors should have been assuaged by the way he’s filled out since first arriving on the prospect scene. Still, I can’t be sure he’ll be much more of a hitter than Victor Robles.

Oh, man, but his defense. We got to see some of it on display during his brief stint in last year’s regular season, and during the aforementioned playoff cameo, but I think he could contend for the Fielding Bible Award right away this year, as a rookie. He’s explosive, he gets great reads, he has a strong arm. My favorite thing, though, is the way he chases balls that have already touched down (or inevitably will do so). An oft-underrated separator between mediocre and good center fielders, and between good and great ones, is the ability to judge and attack gappers and ground-ball singles. Pache is awesome at it. Lorenzo Cain used to be the same way. He would rob opponents of 90 feet at least once a week, by cutting balls off or reaching them sooner than any other center fielder in baseball. Some of it is just the enthusiasm of youth, but there’s a genuine skill involved, and Pache owns it.

The Top 222 Players of 2021: No. 213, James Karinchak

Subscribers to the newsletter are getting my ranking of the top 222 players of the coming season. As I send each installment of the list, I’ll offer one entry as an excerpt here. To get the full list, subscribe! You can do so by clicking the ‘Buy Now’ button at the right side of the page (on computers) or the bottom (on mobile devices).

213. James Karinchak, RHP, Cleveland: The league is replete with really fun relief weapons, but most of them missed this list. Only guys who make an especially strong impact and who present features of extreme interest have pushed their way on, and Karinchak is another example.

It’s nearly impossible to know whether Karinchak’s fastball or curve is coming on a given pitch, because he throws them about equally often. That’s a big problem for hitters, because it’s also nearly impossible to hit either pitch if you begin with divided expectations. The fastball sits 96, and touches 100, with good spin and rising action. The curve snaps downward about a foot and a half, at 83-85 miles per hour. He throws from an insanely high arm slot that keeps the curve from bending laterally and giving it away too soon. 

Plus, have you seen this guy pitch? He’s got a 90s-teen-comedy villain face, and a constant shine of sweat. As he starts his delivery, his knee folds up to his chest, but his arms reach out around it, to full extension. You remember the “can opener” dive into pools, when you were a kid, where you’d pull one knee to your chest and keep the other leg fully extended? Mid-delivery, Karinchak looks like he’s mid-can opener. Then there’s this mad sequence of high-speed twists, and the ball comes downhill to the poor hitter like a splash right in the face.

The Top 222 Players of 2021: Introduction

It’s season preview time, but you’re already inundated with team-level and league-wide previews, via podcast and the written word. (I know for sure, because I’m a significant contributor to the “problem”.) I want to preview and celebrate the upcoming season here, too, but to do so differently. Thus, starting tomorrow, I’ll be counting down my top 222 players of 2021 for you, with short writeups on each.

These aren’t fantasy rankings. (I’m guessing you’re all smart and perceptive enough not to try to use any of my information to win a fantasy league. I’m not good at that segment of baseball analysis.) They’re also not trade value rankings, akin to those published annually at FanGraphs. The focus here is the player themselves, and the rankings are deeply subjective. I’ve tried to arrange them according to the impact I believe they will have in 2021, but I’m sure biases have crept in. You might well notice that players with certain styles, or especially distinct recent performances, are higher or lower than you think they should be. You might well catch me overrating a young player with an especially intriguing profile.

I’ve created the list already, and I think I’ve muted those biases as best I can. I can tell you for sure that, this being March and me being an inveterate romantic about spring, the rankings probably reflect the 60th-percentile outcome for most of these guys, so players with slightly wider ranges of possible outcomes might rise past others of otherwise equal talent, but without as much upside.

I’m guessing 222 might sound like a lot. Don’t worry, I promise to keep (most of) the comments brief. I had originally planned to rank just 111 players; I think I even mentioned as much in a previous edition of the newsletter. As I set about the task, though, I almost immediately realized that that number was insufficient to tell us anything meaningful about the season ahead. 

Roger Angell began writing professionally about baseball in 1962, at the dawn of the expansion era. He began noticing almost immediately, and raised the point repeatedly over the ensuing decades, that expansion had robbed the casual fan of the ability to virtually build a comprehensive mental encyclopedia of the game for a given season. He understood the benefits of expansion, but never stopped lamenting the lost senses of familiarity and intimacy. I sympathize, even though the game hasn’t expanded since my first full season as a fan. 

In 1960, ranking 111 players would have meant accounting for more than a quarter of the league’s active roster spots. There were, back then, just 144 everyday position-player slots available, and most teams had five or fewer pitchers any fan needed to know by more than name and uniform number. In 2021, there are about 250 non-pitchers in the league’s lineups every day, and we all know what has happened to pitcher usage. 

Thus, to really capture the landscape, I had to go much deeper than I’d planned. I started with a list of nearly 400 players, then steadily cut it down. You’ll see the final result starting tomorrow, and I hope reading the countdown will both fire you up for the season ahead and introduce you to a few quirks, skills, or entire players of which you’re currently unaware. Little by little, maybe we can reclaim some of that sense that the baseball world can be contained within the green fields of our minds. At the very least, we might achieve some newfound appreciation for the main characters who populate this ensemble drama.