He could've been a doctor, now he's a star pitcher

Pablo López may be the most interesting man in baseball

October 9th, 2023

This story was first published in May and we are resurfacing it now on the heels of López’s dominant outing in Game 2 of the ALDS.

has been in the Major Leagues since 2018.

He's put up a 3.86 ERA over six seasons; he once set a modern record by striking out the first nine batters of a game; his combo of a devastating sweeper and dancing changeup can make hitters look absolutely helpless at the plate.

Just this year, the Twins -- seeing him as a long-term, top-of-the-rotation talent -- extended him to a four-year, $73.5 million deal.

But all of it, starting with his signing with the Mariners back in 2012, had a very real chance of never even happening.

"By the time Seattle offered me to sign in July 2012, the same college my parents went to accepted me into medical school," López said. "As a 16-year-old, it was a tough decision to make."

Photo by MLB.com's Daniel Shirey

Born in the lakeside city of Cabimas, Venezuela, López grew up in a family that was extremely education driven. Sure, they liked baseball -- like almost everybody in the baseball-loving South American country -- but was that actually a realistic option? His relatives were lawyers and engineers and his parents, his role models, were doctors. His father, Danny, was a general practitioner, while his mother, Agnedis Serra, was a medical pathologist.

"I grew up in a house full of anatomy books and all that," López said. "I fell in love with it."

He fondly remembers spending night shifts with his dad at the hospital and wanting to do the same thing someday, helping people who are sick or hurt. Spending his days in a white lab coat with a stethoscope hanging loosely around his neck.

"I always wanted to be like my dad," López recalled. "He was doing such an amazing job."

But his dad also liked baseball -- and Pablo proved to be very good at the sport from a very young age.

Photo via Pablo López's Instagram

His body transformed during his teenage years into the tall and lanky frame fit for a power pitcher. He admired some of his country's great MLB stars and aspired to be like them some day.

"Every Venezuelan kid grew up a Johan Santana fan," he said. "I have vivid memories of watching him, as a youngster, in a Twins uniform."

But he never took his focus off school. He skipped grades. He learned four languages -- Spanish, English, Portuguese and Italian. He graduated high school at the age of 16, scoring a 19.8 out of 20 on a standardized test to gain acceptance to his parents' medical school. It could be the start of a dream job he'd fantasized about as a kid.

But there was also interest from his other potential dream job: The Seattle Mariners wanted to sign him to a professional contract.

Faced with a difficult decision, López went to his dad -- his mentor -- for advice.

"He said it's 100 percent your decision," López told me. "Whichever way you go, I know you're going to do great things. But the best way I can tell you to look at it right now is, if you choose to play baseball and it doesn't work out as well as you think it could, college is still going to be there. If you choose college and you don't like it, I think the baseball opportunity might be a little harder to get."

That's all López needed to hear. Baseball it was.

Not everybody understood his decision at first -- especially his grandmother, his mom's mom, who was from maybe the more academic-oriented side of the family.

"Yeah, I remember when I chose to play baseball, my grandma was not on the happy side," López laughed.

The choice has, fortunately, proven to be a good one.

Teenaged López battled through injuries to become a bright young star in the Mariners' Minor League system; he was traded to the Marlins in 2017 and shined in his MLB debut as a 22-year-old against the Mets. He was traded to Santana's former team, the Twins, before this season and has, so far, put up some of the best numbers of his career: A 3.77 ERA, an 11.3 K/9 and a 116 ERA+ through seven starts.

The now-27-year-old has also dealt with some heartbreak along the way. He lost both of his role models.

His mother passed away when Pablo was just 11. His dad died from a heart attack in 2020.

As he told La Vida Baseball in 2019, he "can't see his mom, but he knows she was, is and always will be his No. 1 fan." And on Father's Day 2021, López dominated in a start at Wrigley Field against the Cubs. He told reporters postgame that "his dad was always on his mind, always there with him and feels his presence with him on his shoulder."

And to honor his dad's advice back in 2012 and his own ambitions, López still plans on going back to school once his MLB career is over. It might not be specifically for medicine, but something health-wise, sports-wise. Maybe in the field of nutrition. Although he doesn't have as much time as he used to, he still reads and tries to retain information anywhere he can, telling me, "Learning is a never-ending process."

His teammates, knowing of his passion off the field, have also helped keep him at the top of his doctoral game -- albeit with some easier questions than one might get in medical school.

"Yeah, when [Kyle] Farmer unfortunately got hit in the face, it came out as being a laceration," López said. "Some of the guys were asking me what a laceration is. I had to tell them it was not a fracture."