Right-hander Jorge López is nearing 100 innings pitched since the Orioles claimed him off waivers, and his start Saturday against the Tampa Bay Rays sums them up rather nicely.
López allowed five runs on eight hits, mostly owed to bad luck, but also struck out eight in a 5-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. He continued to show an arsenal that could make him a good starter in the long term but also an uncanny ability to run into problems every turn through the rotation that cloud that vision.
“Jorge has electric stuff: two-seam, four-seam; curveball, slider, change,” said catcher Austin Wynns, who has been behind the plate for some of López’s best starts this year. “What it comes down to is executing each pitch and after that, it’ll follow.”
With 99 innings logged for the Orioles and 289 since he made his major league debut in 2015, López, 28, is no stranger to having such qualifiers attached to his lively pitch mix — and with good reason. He entered Saturday with a lifetime 5.89 ERA and is right around there this year at 5.64 in a season during which his arm strength has ticked up, contributing to rises in both his strikeout and walk rate.
Even with the increase in his stuff, with his two-seam fastball averaging 95.1 mph entering Saturday after averaging 93.5 mph in 2020, López has only occasionally put together the types of comprehensive outings his stuff dictates he can have. Early in the season, it was a fifth-inning wall that he’d crash into, torpedoing his outings.
In five April starts, López had a 7.48 ERA, allowing 18 runs on 22 hits with nine walks. He pitched into the fifth inning in all five starts, but 11 of those runs, 11 of those base runners, and half of his six home runs came in the fifth inning.
Once May hit, his season turned around. He started getting through that fifth inning and entered Saturday with a 3.93 ERA in his past seven starts. Manager Brandon Hyde has admired López’s progress in sticking with it and improving over that stretch, which could partly explain why he was so adamant that López was “great” despite the five runs allowed Saturday.
López had a lot of soft singles contribute to the big numbers on his line, but also wasn’t around the strike zone often in the first inning and didn’t help his own cause there. Hyde pointed to how few hard-hit balls there were, and according to MLB’s Statcast data, there were three — tied for the fewest López has allowed in his 19 starts with the Orioles.
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“Today was bad luck,” Wynns said. “They just found holes against him. He pitched one hell of a game, and it didn’t show, but he did.”
Perhaps the greatest indicator of López’s upward trajectory is even a half-decent stat line would have further solidified that the Orioles may have something in him as a starter. All of the peripherals, from fielding-independent pitching (FIP) and its home run-neutralized companion xFIP to his Statcast-powered expected statistics, show a pitcher whose traditional stats are right where they should be.
What López has done of late, though, is give the Orioles a little more consistency in keeping games close, something he said he prides himself on and was glad to have done after the unlucky first inning and Wynns’ grand slam in the fifth.
For a rebuilding team that could have three rookies in the rotation by the middle of next week, having a pitcher like López on a league-minimum salary with the potential to pitch well enough to win on his night isn’t anything to scoff at. With the hope that Mike Baumann, Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells can get looks in the rotation this summer and with top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall each dominating at Double-A, a long-term rotation spot might be difficult for López to hold down.
He’ll be eligible for salary arbitration for the 2022 season, and being out of minor league options, there’s always the possibility that his high-octane stuff could transition to a relief role where many believe he could thrive if he’s pushed out of the rotation by a younger pitcher.
For now, though, López will get ample opportunity to deliver on the long-held promise that his vibrant pitch mix might eventually make him an above-average starter in the big leagues.
“I feel really good about that outing, even if we didn’t get the win,” López said. “I’ll just keep working between starts and hopefully we have better luck.”