At the risk of trivializing the Mariner’s other needs this offseason, the Jose Lopez problem should be thoroughly addressed this offseason. There are more pressing needs, but I don’t find any of them as interesting. Jose Lopez is a young middle infielder who could quite easily become an average 2B and still has the potential to be an All Star several additional times (this time earned). While Lopez’s poor performance makes a PR conscious organization like the Mariners eager to find a replacement, Lopez’s potential makes a PR conscious organization like the Mariners scared to trade him.
The problem with Lopez is two fold: the common answer is that Lopez has played in a park that does nothing to hide his weaknesses. After looking over his Safeco hit chart, I think it is fair to say that the park cost him in the neighborhood of 10 extra basehits. This is a very rough projection but if we assume that he were to get 10 extra base hits and it resulted in 5 more homeruns and 5 more doubles his line would have been .270/.296/.412. That isn’t great but it is promising for a 23 year old middle infielder. Lopez only had one extra base hit to the right side of diamond and I don’t think he’s going to start hitting for power to the opposite side of the field in the near future.
The second problem is that Jose Lopez swings at too many pitches that he can’t handle. I am not referring to his low walk totals, because walks do not necessarily tell us the kind of pitches he is swinging at. Here are the criteria I would apply to a hitter to determine what kind of pitches a batter is going after:
1) BB:K ratio- How a batter is controlling the strikezone.
2) Pitches per PA- How selective a batter is at the plate. (not all strikes at pitches that a batter can handle)
3) GB/FB/LD% and HR/FB- If a hitter is swinging at pitches he can handle he should be posting good line drive rates and HR/FB rates. (A handful of players are exceptions to this rule).
4) BABIP- The test I have built in to bail out hitters who are weak in #2 and #3. Ichiro is a better hitter when he beats the ball into the ball into the ground and gets to first before the shortstops throw. Hitters with abnormal BABIP’s (high and low) should be looked at on a case by case basis to determine the cause for the anomaly be it luck or a repeatable skill or a combination of the two.
Lopez’s BB:K rate is .31 which is below the league average of about .50. Strike one against the friend of Felix. Jose Lopez sees 3.46 P/PA which puts him at 73 of 82 with 500 PA’s (AL). Jose Lopez hits a large number of ground balls and gets less than his share of line drives. His HR/FB is also well below average. He probably got unlucky with a .269 BABIP last season, but considering he has average speed and plays in a park that slows groundballs and turns them into outs, I think it is reasonable to expect Lopez to post a lower than average BABIP.
Fixing Jose Lopez in the short term is as easy as shipping him to another team, preferably one that plays in a park that hides his weaknesses. Lopez will begin to look better strictly on the basis of playing half of his games in another park. For a GM looking to prove himself, this trade is one that will almost certainly make him look smart in the short term.
The long term fix to Lopez is not as simple as a change of scenery. Lopez needs find a way to hide his weaknesses. Waiting for a pitch that he can drive would be an excellent start. I am extremely skeptical of any player whose breakout ability depends so heavily on his pitch recognition ability to go from well below average to above average. This isn’t going to happen overnight and until this improves I see his ceiling as an average player.
I don’t think that Mariners have the patience to wait for Lopez to develop his pitch recognition skills and will cut bait on him before he breaks out. If they do, then we must all wait (which means we will need to be patient) several seasons to know what we are getting with Lopez. A happy medium between the two won’t work because it would be foolish for the Mariners to hang on to Jose Lopez unless they are committed to keeping him around for the duration of his current contract. Why give Lopez two years of AB’s to improve his pitch recognition skills only to let someone else reap the rewards (at pennies on the dollar)?
Jose Lopez has a greater trade value now, than he will at any other time in 2008 and probably 2009 . Jose Lopez’s isn’t due for a big breakout in his current park in the near future and he isn’t getting any younger. The older Lopez gets the less value he has as a player who could break out.
I’m 100% comfortable with trading Lopez for a piece(s) that is a better fit for the Mariners to win in either the short or the long term.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, welcome to the site and comments/critiques are always welcome.