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Oriole of the Day: Move to the bullpen bodes well for Jorge López

With MLB owners continuing to lock out the players as the two sides slowly work toward a new collective bargaining agreement, Orioles officials are barred from specifically discussing players on the team’s 40-man roster.

The Baltimore Sun, of course, faces no such stipulations. Throughout the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at each Oriole, examining their 2021 seasons and what’s ahead for them in 2022, assuming the league and the players’ union eventually come together.

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As a starter, Jorge López continually hit a fifth-inning wall before the Orioles finally elected to move him to the bullpen, only for a season-ending ankle sprain to make his relief audition a brief one. Still, he enters 2022 as a multi-inning bullpen option for manager Brandon Hyde.

Quick hits

2022 Opening Day age: 29

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2021 stats: 6.07 ERA, 121 2/3 innings, 112 strikeouts, 1.627 WHIP, 20.2 K%, 10.1 BB%, 0.8 fWAR

Under team control through: 2024

2021 in review

Number to know: 14.79. López’s fifth-inning ERA was the worst of any pitcher in any one inning this past season and the second worst in Orioles history (minimum 12 innings). López pitched into the fifth in 19 of his first 20 starts, but he completed it only seven times, with strong four-inning stints and a lacking bullpen prompting Hyde to continually send him out for that irksome inning.

What was good: With the Orioles lacking other rotation options, they kept running López out there until a disastrous two-inning start in which his velocity plummeted prompted a move to the bullpen. In a role he long seemed destined for during his time with Baltimore, López thrived. Although the sample size was small, two-thirds of the balls put in play against him as a reliever were groundballs — compared to under half as a starter — while his strikeout rate went from under 20% in the rotation to over 30% in his new role.

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What wasn’t: To dive further into López’s fifth-inning struggles, that frame typically lined up with when he began going through the opposing lineup for a third time, a circumstance that has perhaps surpassed the 100-pitch mark as the time best fit for the a manager to remove his starter. In the third time through, López allowed a .408 batting average — the highest in baseball since former rotation mate Matt Harvey’s .424 with the New York Mets in 2016 — and a 1.079 OPS. He largely struggled the second time through the order, as well, surrendering a .911 OPS compared with a .763 mark the first time through, further suggesting one turn through the lineup as a reliever will be a better fit going forward.

Orioles pitcher Jorge López pitched into the fifth in 19 of his first 20 starts, but he completed it only seven times.
Orioles pitcher Jorge López pitched into the fifth in 19 of his first 20 starts, but he completed it only seven times. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Looking ahead to 2022

Likely 2022 role: Multi-inning reliever

What’s projected: Steamer projects López to benefit from the move to the bullpen, increasing his strikeout rate, dipping his walk rate and cutting more than two runs off his ERA, with all three of those figures coming out as career bests for a full season. ZiPS, meanwhile, sees López still getting most of his work as a starter, which seems unlikely. Still, it also forecasts improvements in his walk rate and ERA, with a slight decrease in strikeout rate.

A step forward: As mentioned, a full season as a reliever could make López a valuable piece to carry forward in this rebuild. Late in the year, Hyde said the move to the bullpen would be good for López mentally, giving him the ability to pitch frequently rather than sit for four days between starts. In 2022, López will have a year to show that to be the case.

Three up, three down

This series is ordered based on the WAR, as measured by FanGraphs, each member of Baltimore’s 40-man roster produced in 2021. The past three players featured in the series were Cole Sulser, Ryan Mountcastle and Tyler Wells. The Orioles due up next are Anthony Santander, Trey Mancini and Rougned Odor.

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