López goes from young Johan fan to Twins' rotation

January 24th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Do-Hyoung Park’s Twins Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Just about every Twins fan old enough to remember Johan Santana’s time as the ace of Minnesota’s rotation can picture the Venezuelan left-hander using his signature changeup to mow down opposing lineups with ease. Back in Venezuela, plenty of young baseball fans were watching, too.

, the Twins’ new right-hander, was one of those kids -- and he’s particularly thrilled to join the organization for which he watched one of his baseball idols dominate all those years ago.

“I’m incredibly excited to be part of an organization like the Minnesota Twins,” López said. “Every Venezuelan kid grew up a Johan Santana fan, and Johan Santana had, you know, the time of his career as a Minnesota Twin. I have vivid memories of watching him as a youngster in a Twins uniform.”

It’s tough to set Santana as the standard for any young pitcher -- López is still only 26 -- but if the newest member of the Twins is to attain a high level of success in Minnesota, it could look somewhat similar to how the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner handled opposing lineups.

That’s because López, too, leans heavily on his changeup, which has been one of the most effective pitches in his arsenal as part of his emergence as a front-end starter over the last three years, during which time he has compiled a 3.52 ERA. He threw it more often than ever last season -- 35.3% of the time -- as he simplified his five-pitch mix to rely mostly on his fastball and changeup.

It’s a hard changeup, averaging 87.5 mph last season, but López’s highlight reels are filled with lefties and righties alike swinging over the top of the pitch as it dives to the right-hander’s arm side with crisp break before it crosses the plate. He generated a 33.9% whiff rate (swings and misses) with the pitch last season, including 38.7% from right-handed hitters, who typically see right-handed changeups more effectively.

The Twins almost certainly have ideas for how they hope to continue developing López. They could work on his cutter more, for example, as it could fit their organizational emphasis on sliders and cutters. But a fastball that touched 97.3 mph last season and that changeup have already driven him to plenty of big league success -- and the Twins felt strongly enough about his track record and potential to part ways with Luis Arraez in a trade.

“You talk about his changeup, you talk about the way he can utilize his fastball, this guy has plenty of velocity,” Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. “He can put it where he wants. That changeup can be absolutely a beast at times. He’s used it in elite ways against really good lineups and had real success.”