That crowded starting rotation of the future seems to be making room for Reynaldo Lopez.
The White Sox hurler in his first full season in the majors is having a late-season turnaround that has him pitching as well as he has all year — and is sparking hopes for a more consistent 2019.
Lopez has had plenty of good moments in 2018, most notably in the season’s early going, when he started the year with a sub-2.00 ERA in April. But that number rose to nearly 4.00 by the end of May, stood around 4.50 at the end of a rough July and was pretty much the same at the close of business in August.
By mid August, Lopez’s inconsistencies were enough to match those of Lucas Giolito, and the two young pitchers didn’t seem to be doing much — other than going through the expected growing pains of developing players — to exactly lock down spots in a future rotation that could feature fierce competition from the likes of Carlos Rodon, Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease and a host of other young arms in the White Sox loaded farm system.
But as evidenced from Lopez’s stellar outing against the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday afternoon, things have changed in the last few weeks. Lopez tossed six scoreless innings, matched a season best with 10 strikeouts, allowed just two hits and didn’t let anyone get past first base.
“He had a really good fastball (Sunday). Really good life on the fastball,” catcher Welington Castillo said after the game. “Our game plan was to attack those hitters with fastballs, throw a couple good changes. That was the game plan and he executed well.
“The confidence he has on the fastball and on any pitch in any count, that’s big for him. … He’s getting better life on the fastball and better angle on the fastball and the other pitches, too.”
Sunday’s effort was the third straight great one from Lopez, the fourth straight good one, and he’s got a 1.40 ERA in those last four outings, with 29 strikeouts in 25.2 innings. He was one out on Aug. 24 in Detroit from making all four last at least six innings.
Lopez actually points to his late-August outing at Yankee Stadium as the moment of the turnaround. That was a weird-looking one at first, with Lopez’s velocity way down at the start of the game. Manager Rick Renteria and the trainer checked on Lopez during the game to make sure he was OK physically. He was, it turned out, and he stayed in to complete seven innings of one-run ball and get the White Sox a win against one of baseball’s best teams.
“I learned a lot from that outing against the Yankees because my fastball, the velocity on my fastball wasn’t there in the beginning and then I had to rely on my secondary pitches. I was able to command and to be effective with those pitches before I could regain the velocity on my fastball. I learned a lot in that outing,” Lopez said through a team translator last week.
“One of the things I learned in that outing, too, was to try to be effective at the same time that I'm not trying to do too much. Just keep it simple. That was one of the things that I brought to the game (Sept. 3 against the Detroit Tigers). Try to be effective, don’t try to do too much, have confidence on all my pitches.
“Even when the fastball wasn’t there, I was able to command my secondary pitches, and seeing that as a pitcher, you try to learn every day. You grow from outing to outing. It was a really nice experience for me in New York. I learned a lot, and that helped me. Right now I’m a better pitcher because I had that experience in New York and I experienced how to be effective and be successful when you don’t have your best pitches ready.”
Those learning moments, the times when the light bulbs go on, is what this season was always going to be about at the major league level for the rebuilding White Sox. Lopez and Giolito, as well as position players like Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson, didn’t start 2018 as finished products, and they likely won’t start 2019 that way, either. But the development occurring at the big league level is as valuable as a thing can be in 2018, especially when it has huge ramifications for 2019, 2020, 2021 and so on.
Another evolution for Lopez appears to be the absence of the “lack of focus” that he used to describe some of his midseason woes. It was a common refrain while Lopez’s ERA climbed during the summer months, but as the results have improved, that explanation has disappeared, and his teammates have seen it, too.
“I’ve caught his last two outings, and I don’t see him lose focus pitch by pitch,” Castillo said. “We talked before he came out, and he had a really good idea of what he wanted to do. I think his focus is there, and I believe in him. I believe in all my pitchers. When he can control his focus, I think he’s going to be good.”
At the beginning of the season, Lopez was keeping runs off the board at such a rate — and outshining the fellow members of the starting rotation — that we asked whether he wouldn’t just be a part of that rotation of the future but perhaps be the ace of it. Midseason struggles, not to mention the ace-like pitching of Rodon, altered those expectations slightly. But here at season’s end, Lopez is perhaps pitching as well as he has all season.
Those rising and falling expectations are the pitfall, obviously, of making judgments throughout a 162-game season. But with a strong finish, Lopez can go a long way in convincing 2020 roster projectors to stop penciling his name into that rotation and to start using pen.
“I am feeling good. I feel strong,” he said. “My mindset in every outing is to go at least six. If I can go more, that’s even better. Go at least six innings and try to finish strong.”