Healthy López lighting up radar gun like never before

September 4th, 2022

ATLANTA -- 97.1.

No, that’s not a Miami radio station, but the maximum velocity Marlins right-hander Pablo López reached in Sunday afternoon’s 7-1 loss to the Braves at Truist Park. He hit that number twice in the series finale -- both called strikes in the second inning -- to tie for the third-fastest pitches of his career (his fastest was 97.3 mph on July 31).

In fact, all five of López’s offerings showed increased velocity from his season average in the series finale, per Baseball Savant:

• Four-seamer: +2.5 mph (95.7 mph average vs. Braves)
• Changeup: +1.7 mph (89 mph average)
• Curveball: +2.7 mph (83.4 mph average)
• Sinker: +1.6 mph (94.7 mph average)
• Cutter: +0.9 mph (89.5 mph average)

“With the fastball, you feel a little more whip at the end, which is always a good feeling,” said López, whose 95.7 mph fastball average was the highest in any of his 89 career starts. “And then, everything works off the fastball. If you find the fastball has a little more to it, the other pitches will follow that. There's not much of an adjustment. You just know that's what you have that day and you go to work with that, and then everything stays the same. You want to be on top of the pitches, you still want to repeat your delivery, and then, you just take what the game gives you.”

It’s an extremely encouraging sign considering the date on the calendar. The 26-year-old López, who has been sidelined by shoulder trouble every season except 2020, has already set career highs for starts (27) and innings (150), with potentially five more outings remaining in ‘22.

Though López is in his fifth big league season, he is in uncharted territory. Everything that happens from this point on is a new horizon.

“I think Pablo's probably learning a lot about his routines, and he's learning how to back off and throw less in between and making sure he's not overdoing it in between starts,” manager Don Mattingly said. “I think that's probably going to be his biggest lesson from this year is how to really get through a season, and the confidence that comes with knowing your stuff's holding [up] and you're healthy.”

Unfortunately, López had his start cut short in Atlanta for the second straight time. He last appeared on the Truist Park mound on July 2, 2021, when his first pitch hit Ronald Acuña Jr. and earned him an ejection.

On Sunday, a one-hour, 51-minute rain delay in the middle of the fifth inning forced Mattingly’s hand. López felt frustrated and powerless -- but a starting pitcher is unlikely to return after a delay that reaches the 45-minute to one-hour mark.

That left López with a final line of two runs on five hits with one walk and seven strikeouts across four innings. He threw 75 pitches, relying heavily on his sharp four-seamer (42.7%) and changeup (29.3%) when he didn’t have an early feel for his curveball. It was spinning well, but López needed to find a different starting point since they were landing way in front of the plate.

So López followed a second-half trend of increased four-seamer usage because of how good it has looked. By the same token, he thought his lone mistake was an 0-2 fastball that Marcell Ozuna lined to right for a solo homer in the fourth -- perhaps it was location, perhaps throwing the pitch too much.

López had the opposite problem prior to the All-Star break, when he wasn’t giving himself time on the mound for a tilt that would produce enough energy. That way, the front foot would strike and generate that whip with increased velo.

“I feel like I had a good fastball today, just one of those days that things felt in sync on the mound,” López said. “I was allowing myself to gather before ungathering, having a good stride. I think I was really good at load and unload, which allowed me to work north, south and let everything happen. And then, obviously, the way we felt about the fastball, we were doing a good job at changing eyesight, changing levels. Fastball down, fastball up, in and out of the strike zone.”