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Game 119: Twins at Phillies

Save us, Pablo...

MLB: Minnesota Twins at St. Louis Cardinals
Minnesota sends Pablo Lopez (49) to the bump to stop the skid
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

First Pitch: 5:05 Central

Weather: Partly cloudy, light winds with gusts up to 25 mph, 87° at first pitch

Opponent’s SB site: The Good Phight


Radio: TIBN

Records: Twins 60-58 (1st ALC, +3.5), Phillies 65-52 (2nd NLE -9.5, 1st NLWC, +4.5)

Last time out: The Twins were given remedial training about why you can never have enough quality pitching and how having pitchers that can miss bats is kind of important. Phillies 13, Twins 2. The Twins’ losing skid stretched to four games.

Today: Pablo López takes the mound for the slumping visitors against RHP Taijuan Walker and the Phillies. After exhausting their long relief options in last night’s blowout, the Twins will be looking for López to post up and work deep into this game. They did make a roster move to add a fresh arm. Cole Sands was recalled from St. Paul and lefty Brent Headrick was optioned out.

On the brighter side, the Twins should be in good shape for a close game because all the higher leverage relief options have gotten some rest during this losing streak:

López started off the unofficial second half of the season with a clunker in Oakland (8 hits, 7 runs, 5.2 innings) but has since rattled off four good ones in a row. He’s worked 25 innings and allowed just 5 runs with a 28-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in that stretch. That’s pushed his seasonal ERA and FIP down to 3.81 and 3.27, respectively.

While the trade that brought López to Minnesota was (and remains) unpopular with the fanbase, that should not overshadow his talent. On a pure transaction value basis, public assessments of the trade concluded it was a reasonable one on both sides. The Twins badly needed quality starting pitching and felt they had infield depth to draw from. The Marlins badly needed quality offense and felt they had pitching depth to draw from. Hence, a match.

Gatorade All-Star Workout Day
Pablo López #49 of the Minnesota Twins and Luis Arraez #3 of the Miami Marlins hug at the All-Star Game
Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Games like yesterday’s are good illustrations of why the Twins felt compelled to make the trade. Yes, their offense has badly missed Luis Arráez, but with Carlos Correa, Jorge Polanco, José Miranda, Kyle Farmer, Edouard Julien, and Royce Lewis on the extended roster, and more infielders nearing major league readiness in the high minors (Brooks Lee, Austin Martin) the Twins made a bet that they’d have a better chance at replacing Arráez’s production from within than they did at internally producing enough quality innings on the mound.

That infield depth has horribly underperformed, been injured, or both (save for Julien and Lee), so that side of the bet hasn’t exactly panned out.

And now the pitching depth side is starting to show signs of playing out as expected/feared.

Joe Ryan’s injury/cratering was unexpected (although some sophomore slump should not have been wholly unanticipated), Bailey Ober is now showing signs of fatigue under the largest workload of his life, and the underbelly of the Twins’ pitching depth has been getting more or less torched in the majors in the 2nd half (Balazovic, Winder, Sands, Headrick, Keuchel).

You can at least see the logic of why they wanted to add López, and that was before Tyler Mahle was lost for the season with an injury.

That’s all got little to do with López personally, who has mostly just done his job. If anything, he has made a couple of meaningful adjustments with the Twins that have raised his ceiling. The Twins and López agreed to a 4-year, $73-million extension after his fourth start this season. That deal was perfectly reasonable for the pitcher López had been in Miami and left room for the Twins to realize surplus value if any of his early-season improvements proved to be sticky.

So far, they have.

López was an above-average, #3-ish type starter for the Marlins, who relied primarily on fastballs (both types) and changeups and lacked a threatening breaking ball. He’d dabbled with curveballs and cutters that were average-ish at times in the past but never had one that really stuck or scared anyone.

Last year, his four-seamer also backed up in terms of velocity and shape when López’s release points seemed to be affected after he was hit in the right wrist by a comebacker in early June.

Since he’s come to Minnesota, López has incorporated the big, sweeping slider that’s all the rage right now, and to great effect. He’s using his sweeper about 20% of the time (almost 30% against right-handed batters) and it’s drawing a whiff on 35% of opponent swings against it. That’s a major improvement over the cutter it replaced, which had whiff rates of 18.3% and 24.3% the prior two seasons. Moreover, on 106 plate appearances ending on López’s sweeper this year, opponents have hit .178, slugged .327, and produced just .230 wOBA.

What’s more, López has regained and also enhanced his fastball release to make that pitch play up more than ever before. López’s vertical release point has returned to about 5.5 feet after dropping into the 5.3’s late last season after the wrist injury.

That recovery has helped to add about 70 RPMs of spin and increase the active spin on the pitch back to 75%. Moreover, the spin is more true four-seam backspin (1:00 spin-based measurement) than in the past (1:15 and 1:30 the prior two seasons), which has added an extra inch of induced vertical break to the pitch.

López is also getting more extension down the mound on all his pitches this season (up to about 7.2 feet from 6.9 feet last year, ranked in the 97th percentile). That extension, combined with a career-high 94.9 mph average four-seamer velocity (about a mile and a half firmer than last season) has meant that the perceived velocity of López’s four-seamer has jumped up to 96.7 mph, about two miles an hour faster than before.

Taken together, those tweaks have pushed López’s whiff rate on his four-seamer up to 30.6% and made the pitch his most valuable offering in terms of run value (+7.6).

That all also served to increase López’s overall arsenal in the eyes of the pitch quality models:

Pablo López Stuff+ Metrics, 2021-2023
Data from FanGraphs

López’s four-seamer is improved over the recent past and his sweeper gives him an above-average breaking option to complement his model-busting changeup. (Pitch quality models are notorious for struggling to measure changeups because we don’t yet really know how to measure deception.)

His 109 overall Pitching+ score is the 3rd-best among 64 qualified pitchers, tied with Gerrit Cole and trailing only Spencer Strider and Zack Wheeler. Lowering the threshold to 50 innings pitched brings in about 150 more pitchers to the list, including a bunch of big-stuff relievers. López ranks 10th on that list and remains the 3rd-highest starting pitcher.

With his team not having won a game since he was last on the bump, López needs to provide the type of frontline performance the team needs from its stopper and that his stuff suggests he’s capable of.

Here are today’s lineups. Enjoy the game!

John is a writer for Twinkie Town and Pitcher List with an emphasis on analysis. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.