López K's career-high 11: Here's what makes him so unhittable

May 14th, 2022

MIAMI -- It's never too early for National League Cy Young conversation, especially when two top candidates find themselves entrenched in a pitchers' duel. Marlins right-hander knew he would have to be at his best for Friday night’s matchup against reigning Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes.

López added another stellar performance to his resume in a 2-1 loss to the Brewers at loanDepot park, striking out a career-high 11 batters and permitting just a leadoff homer to Kolten Wong across seven innings. Following Lorenzo Cain's two-out double in the second, he retired 15 consecutive batters until Hunter Renfroe's two-out single in the seventh.

“I think that just motivates me to go out there and make my pitches,” López said. “It's one of those things that you're going against their No. 1 guy, No. 1 guy in the National League last year, so you want to make sure that you keep the club within distance to score again.”

With the way López has pitched so far in 2022, the same could be said of him by opposing clubs. His 1.05 ERA is the lowest for a Marlins pitcher through his first seven starts of a season.

Here is where López ranks among qualifying Major League pitchers:

ERA: First
Average against: Third (.175)
WHIP: Third (0.81)
Innings: Tied-fourth (43)
Strikeouts: Tied-eighth (46)
K/BB: Ninth (5.75)

“He's been special, and he never showed any panic even when he was struggling [in Spring Training],” catcher said. “It's fun to be back there with him, because I have confidence he's going to throw the ball where I call it, and he gives me confidence because I know he's prepared and I know he's done his homework. So it makes my job easier calling a game knowing when he says yes, then it's probably the right pitch.”

So what is making López so unhittable in 2022?

Look no further than López turning to his best pitch -- the changeup -- more than ever. Entering the series opener, he had upped the usage from 32.5 percent in 2021 to a career-high 36.8 percent in '22. On Friday, López threw his offspeed pitch 44.4 percent of the time for the third-highest mark of his career. Marlins manager Don Mattingly said it was the right game plan facing a good fastball-hitting club.

Brewers batters were hitless in 14 at-bats ending in a changeup, with nine strikeouts. López also induced 14 whiffs on 21 swings (67 percent) for the highest rate of his career. For the season, opponents are now 8-for-64 (.125) with 26 strikeouts vs. the pitch. Entering Friday, it had a -6 run value -- the best of any changeup in the Majors and eighth best regardless of pitch type.

López’s changeup and fastball come out from the same arm slot, making it difficult to recognize the offering, according to Brewers first baseman Jace Peterson. Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell added that the changeup, which doesn’t have significant velocity separation from the heater, appears to stop as it gets to the plate.

“I've had moments where the changeup has a lot of lateral movement and you do want some, but you also want the drop,” López said. “You want that drop that gets under the barrel. So I worked really hard to make sure that my tempo, my rhythm with my hands was right, which allowed me to be on time and work ahead like on top of the baseball, which gave me the action that we seek.”

Aside from confidence, which yields good results and vice versa, the 26-year-old López credits the work he put in between starts to make sure his movement was consistent. Since he doesn’t throw triple digits, hitting his locations and mixing his pitches are crucial.

And despite the usage numbers, López doesn’t want to abuse it. Key is finding the right balance with his repertoire and determining with Stallings situations that require him to throw his best stuff.

“It's one that you see and it just disappears on you,” said Peterson, whose bases-loaded walk in the ninth was the difference. “He was able to kind of move it in, move it out, and he threw well tonight. I feel like you saw two of the best pitchers in the game kind of going at it, and it's kind of what you expect when you’ve got those two guys on the mound in a tight ballgame.”