Reynaldo Lopez came out guns blazing in his White Sox debut. His first pitch in a White Sox uniform clocked in at 97 mph, but it went for a ball. He then fired in two more 97 mph heaters before finishing off Whit Merrifield with a nasty changeup at 86 mph. That strikeout was symbolic of how the first trip through the order would go for Lopez. He was missing bats with ease, using each of his three remarkable pitches. Those first couple innings were incredibly exciting, providing a glimpse into a bright future the night after Yoan Moncada had his breakout game that secured a White Sox victory. It was one of just a few times this season that I’ve been on the edge of my seat, intently watching each and every pitch. Lopez looked outstanding.
Things started to fall apart, however, when he entered the heart of the Royals lineup for the second time. With a no-hitter still intact in the fourth inning, Lopez hung a curveball that Mike Moustakas crushed to right-center field. Things started to fall apart after that as he allowed two straight hits with still just one out. He came back and got two straight outs to escape, but it was the beginning of a tumultuous final three innings of work for the young righty.
When Moustakas strode to the plate again in the sixth, the result was the same as in the fourth. This time, it was a changeup from Lopez left up in the zone taken over the left-center wall. He didn’t have a single strikeout after the third inning. He survived on outs in the air, giving up just those two runs on the long ball. In his six innings of work, he had just one ground ball out. The final line showed that it was a successful debut with Lopez going six innings, allowing four hits, two runs, and three walks while striking out six.
Reynaldo was sitting in the upper 90s during the first three innings of work; surely adrenaline had something to do with him pumping gas to begin his White Sox debut. When he got into trouble in the later innings of his start, the fastball was sitting closer to 95 mph. The extra couple ticks, along with nasty secondary pitches in the first three innings is what allowed him to miss bats with such authority. He had six strikeouts in the first three innings of work and looked extremely impressive despite his pitch count quickly building up.
The stuff simply dropped off for Lopez as he got into the fourth and beyond. His fastball was a couple ticks lower, and there was noticeably less bite to his curveball. The changeup was left up in the zone far too often, and major league hitters naturally pounced on such opportunities. Even with his stuff dropping off, Lopez was able to battle through, though. He managed to work around a couple base hits and a lot of balls in the air to complete a solid start. Only Moustakas was truly able to jump at his mistakes, and he’s on pace for at least 40 home runs this season.
This start was entirely emblematic of Lopez’ prospect profile. His stuff is incredible, and when he’s on he’s going to dazzle with all three pitches. When he’s not missing bats, however, the contact he gives up is often in the air (42.8 percent fly balls in Charlotte). That contact in the air becomes dangerous when it’s hit with even a little gusto or catches a stream of wind or perhaps is carried further because of a juiced ball. Such was the case against Moustakas, whose fly balls both landed beyond the outfield wall.
Analysts and scouts have doubted Lopez’s ability to start in the long term. It’s easy to scoff at such statements when merely peering at box scores from minor league games. Lopez certainly looked like he was handling a starter’s role with ease in Charlotte. Those box scores don’t quite tell the whole story, and it’s not until a pitcher is given a good look that the concerns come to light.
The concerns about Lopez’ future as a starter were on display Friday. While he did work through the sixth inning allowing just two earned runs, the concern about a future in the bullpen is entirely warranted. The stuff is good. It’s really good. But if he is unable to induce weak contact and ground balls, as was the case against the Royals, the profile screams future reliever. When he’s on, he’s striking out batters left and right while driving up his pitch count. When he’s off, hitters make more contact. That contact is often in the air, leading to home runs allowed.
It should be mentioned that this is all based on one start. Things can change for better or worse in the future starts Lopez will see throughout the months of August and September. However, it was impossible to ignore the warning signals about the future of the lively right-handed arm.
Lead photo credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports