You don’t get the title? It’s okay, I already lol’d myself to the grave. For those of you unfamiliar with the term “bulk man,” it is a reliever that typically handles a majority or “bulk” of the innings preceding an “opener.” Though still a concept in its infancy, an opener typically “starts” the game and pitches 1 inning to their opponent’s top of the order. Depending on how they fare against opponents, a second inning isn’t completely out of the question.
Lopez originally arrived in Kansas City along with Brett Phillips in a trade deadline deal in 2018 that sent Mike Moustakas to the Milwaukee Brewers. At the time, it seemed like a promising deal sending away a veteran on an expiring contract for two former top prospects in the minor league pipeline. Nearly one year later, things haven’t exactly gone as originally envisioned. Phillips is currently in AAA Omaha, where he struggled early on, though the switch has flipped of late. Meanwhile, Lopez has struggled mightily as a starter so far during his Royals tenure. Although he wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire with the Brewers, since being acquired by the Royals, Lopez has posted a 3-10 record in 17 starts sporting a 6.35 ERA, which equates to a whopping 70 earned runs allowed in 99.2 innings of work. During that span Lopez has also walked roughly 33.3% of batters faced and allowed 20 long balls. On the plus side, he is still striking guys out at a decent clip with 88 punchouts in those 99.2 frames. Now that we have a general premise of Lopez’s numbers let’s dive in and see if there is a case for him as a bulk man.
The first thing I want to take a look at are Lopez’s walk rate numbers. Command has never been his calling card but it would be impudent to say Lopez doesn’t possess the “stuff” to hang in the majors. So far in 2019, Lopez has posted 3.3 BB/9 which isn’t terrible but isn’t great either. Interestingly, Lopez has actually been improving on his walk numbers since his time with the Brewers. In the 7 games he started for the Royals in 2018, Lopez sported a very respectable 2.4 BB/9. Coupling that with the 3.3 BB/9 so far in 2019, it’s safe to say that Jorge Lopez has actually been lowering the amount of free passes he issues to opponents since his time with the Brewers.
Now that we have identified that walks may not be the particular source of his struggles, let’s take a peek at Lopez’s splits and advanced pitching statistics. One avenue I was curious to explore was his splits as he progressed through a start against opponents. Below I have Lopez’s numbers for the 2018 and 2019 season, respectively.
As you can see, it is quite evident Lopez does his best work the first time through the batting order. In subsequent times through the order (2nd, 3rd, 4th) you can see the ratio of hits allowed to at-bats against begins to jump quite a bit. Surprisingly enough, Lopez’s walk numbers have stayed relatively constant in comparison. This shows that in subsequent turns through the order, Lopez is still attacking the zone, but it seems that opponents are having a much easier time recognizing his offerings and putting the ball in play. Looking at the numbers as a whole, it is also quite apparent that Lopez has just given up far too many long balls. From 2018 to 2019 alone, Lopez’s HR/9 numbers jumped from 1.3 to 2.1, respectively.
The main reason I believe a shift to a bulk man role is the change Jorge Lopez needs is that the role allows him to simplify his overall approach. When starting a game, the general premise is to pitch at least 6 quality innings and give your team a chance to win. This means having a game plan for each turn through the batting order and executing it whether the results are good or bad. Having a diverse repertoire and pitch sequencing can go a long way in helping a starter dominate multiple times through a lineup. But, it can also over complicate pitching for some players and lead to struggles. A shift to a bulk man role would certainly help simplify the whole pitching approach for a post hype starter like Lopez. Below I have some Statcast data regarding Lopez’s pitch usage and results from 2018 to 2019.
(We will disregard 2017 for this since that encompasses only one, 2 inning relief appearance.)
What I’m looking for here are pitch trends on a year to year basis. As we stated earlier, Lopez has struggled mightily with allowing hits and the long ball this season. Coincidentally, if you look at Figure 1, Lopez’s fastball usage has jumped from 20.8% to 29.5% in the past year alone. Taking a look at Statcast data in Figure 2, what is more interesting is that Lopez’s fastball has the highest walk percentage (BB%) among his entire repertoire and opponents have been consistently squaring up that pitch. His fastball happens to have the highest XSLG and exit velocity against by a decent margin. It’s crazy because if you then take a peek at Lopez’s curveball in Figure 2, he has used it just as much as his fastball this season, but to drastically different results. Although his other off-speed offerings have been used to a lesser degree, Lopez has still posted strong K%, BB%, and Whiff% with those pitches. It seems that a large portion of Lopez’s struggles with being hit around and the long ball stem largely from his increased fastball usage.
One hypothesis I had for the bump in fastball usage was a possibility that Lopez was falling behind in counts and relying on it to get back even. Not the case either. So far this year, Lopez has only been behind in counts to hitters 55 times with more than half of those being in 3-2 counts. Meanwhile, Lopez has actually been quite good at getting ahead of batters with 96 counts to show (not counting even counts). So that nullifies that take. My only other plausible explanation is that Jorge Lopez is using his fastball way too much to help set up his off-speed offerings.
The good new for Lopez’s fastball woes are that he still offers a sinker that he favored over the fastball in 2018. Returning to his sinker use would no doubt help limit the amount of home runs he gives up, and could also help generate a lot more ground ball outs rather than elevated balls. It’s no question that Lopez has filthy off-speed pitches as we saw in the Statcast data earlier, but his fastball obliteration has largely mitigated the gains he has made overall. A move to shorter stints where he may only go through a lineup 2 or 3 times tops as a bulk man could go a long way in helping Jorge Lopez take the next step into becoming a quality rotation piece for the future. I believe these shorter stints will be beneficial in teaching Lopez how to go out and just pitch rather than throwing to get deep into a ball game.
I fully expect that the Royals will employ some sort of “opener” strategy following the break. Going through a rebuild, I think you have to be open to exploring all avenues and this is one that could certainly help Jorge Lopez blossom into his full potential.
Sources: Baseball Savant, Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, ESPN
Photo Credit: John Sleezer, KC Star