When Good Relievers Go Bad
You know when you see a guy pitch for another team, and you say, “Hey, he’d look good pitching for us.” I didn’t see a lot of Wilton Lopez the years leading up to the trade in 2013, but what I did see, and what I saw on the stat sheets made me think, “We got this guy for Alex White, someone who was never going to figure out Coors? This is a steal!” Sadly for Houston, Alex has since had TJ surgery, and we all hope he can get back to having a big league career.
Sadly, we now are hoping the same thing for Wilton Lopez. The three years leading up to the trade showed us a pitcher who was a good ground-ball pitcher, who had closed the last two months of his time in Houston, who was still relatively young (29 when traded), and who, in his last season in Houston was the age equivalent quality of Jeff Nelson, a very good setup man throughout his career (Baseball-reference has that stat, equivalent at age, is a fun one to look at).
His three years leading up to the trade he had 68,73,64 appearances (maybe a little over used), and 67,71, and 66.1 innings. This is pitching in Minute Maid Park, a band-box of a park. His ERA dropped from 2.96, to 2.79, to 2.17. This is the kind of reliever teams want. No, not huge K/9 (highest 7.3/9 his last year in Houston), but his WHIP was 1.060 to 1.268 to 1.040. Tell me this is not a guy you want your team to trade for to fill out the pen. Heck, the last year before we traded for him his BB/9 was 1.1. You want this guy in your pen!!!
And then from day 1, things blew up. You remember it, last year, Opening Day in Milwakee April 1, 2013. I took the afternoon off just to watch opening day. Teams up 3-1 going into the 8th. Out walks Wilton Lopez, going to be a quick inning. Nope! End of the 8th and its 4-3, and despite coming back to tie it, they still lose. From that point forward, Lopez never got his confidence. Oh, he had runs of good outings, but they were almost entirely in low pressure situations, often on the road. The Lopez that should have been a key lockdown part of one of the best pens in the NL West (think I said last year they had the best in the NL West….on paper), became one of those “don’t go to this guy” type of players. It didn’t help that Matt Belisle also stopped being Matt Belisle and that Rafeal Betencourt had appendix groin, appendix and then finally TJ problems. The pen went from strength to biggest weakness (along with #5 starter of course).
This Spring I think we were all hoping things would be different for Wilton. Spring Training wasn’t bad. He threw 11.2 innings with a 1.54 ERA and a WHIP of 1.03. Looks good, things are fixed. There is no reason to think that this isn’t going to be the guy you traded for this year. Openning Day we saw the same thing as last year, 2.2 innings of 6 hit ball (with 4Ks I grant you). The next two outings at home were good, though again the two games were not close. The first was one inning in the Home Opener 12-2 blow-out (1 inning 2 hits, so not outstanding), and then again on Sunday in the loss to Arizona, one of his best outings as a Rox, 2 inning of 2 hit ball, in just 21 pitches. This had to give Walt Weiss some confidence going forward.
Then came one of the worst outings I have ever seen from any pitcher. On a night when they needed to have him pitch the whole inning one way or the other, he gives them 2/3 of an inning of 8 hit, 6 run, 3 HR pitching. What do you do with that? That is Rick Vaughn pre-glasses type pitching. This is not the pitcher who threw for Houston the three years before he came over here. This is not a $2.2 million dollar/year pitcher. What happened?
Which is the title of this post, because I don’t know. He may have thrown a good number of innings in Houston, but not that many. He seems healthy. His velocity looks good. He is clearly missing his spots, and yes, he has had some bad luck in the past year and 4 games, which is what happens with groundball pitchers. But you do not expect a groundball pitcher, one who has never had a year of full-time playing with a HR/9 higher than 1. Who is this guy who has been in Wilton Lopez’s jersey the past year?
The good news is that he has an option. The better new is that the Rox bit the bullet and sent him down, despite the salary (I don’t see anywhere that he makes less being in the minors – his is a major league contract, period). So the team is not making the financial decision, they are making the baseball decision. But what happens?
Colorado Springs does have a humidor, but the wind blows here non-stop. They did re-do the infield so it should be as smooth as any in the minors (I have heard its now big league quality), but not sure that is true up and down the PCL. The infield he will have playing behind has Paul Janish at SS. Ryan Wheeler at 3B, Ben Paulsen at 1B, and Drew Garcia and Rafeal Ynoa at 2B. Not to be confused with the early 70s Baltimore Orioles, but decent. He has good catchers to catch him in Mike McKenry and Jackson Williams. I don’t know much about the pitching coach Dave Schular, but I am guessing they will have some others working with him.
You cannot give-up on this guy. There is talent in the arm. But I am guessing there is a lot of fear/stress/expectation of failure between the ears. We only have one relief pitcher at AAA who is on the 40 man roster, Rob Scahill. Yes, we know that Franklin Morales will probably move to the pen, but in a given year you have to plan to replace about half of your pen during the season because of injuries. So, we either need to get Wilton turned around or get him turned around enough to trade him for someone in the same shape.
The other options are for guys on the 40s currently listed as starters (Friedrich or Matzek) to move to the pen. But the fact is we need Wilton. We need him to become the guy we traded for in 2012. We need a guy who can get groundball outs, who can get double-plays. Power arms are great. You have to have guys who can get a K when you need it. But a good mix is what you have to have.
There are all sorts of things that might be wrong with Wilton. He may be hurt. He may have the yips. He may not trust his stuff. I am not sure. But, and I know this is probably going to go over on this roxwalkoff.com like the Hindenburg, we need Wilton to have be competitive in the pennant races at the end of the year.
Thoughts? Ideas? Or do you know some other team’s comparable arm with comparable price that you could suggest to Dan O’ Dowd to make a trade. Sometimes a guy just needs a fresh start.