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Pablo Lopez, Miami's Other Breakout Starter


Miami Marlins right-hander Pablo Lopez quietly dominated the Braves on Sunday, tossing six scoreless innings with one walk and six strikeouts. That was his second scoreless outing in his last three appearances, and it lowered his season ERA to 4.03 - along with a 1.08 WHIP and a 25% strikeout rate.

Lopez's 4.03 ERA, even after two recent quality starts, doesn't provide a ton of confidence for the casual fantasy owner who is scouring the waiver wire. But a quick check under the hood shows that Lopez has a spectacular 2.80 FIP, along with a 3.64 SIERA.

So, the big question: is he a 4.03 pitcher, a 3.64 pitcher or a 2.80 pitcher? After all, Lopez looked pretty bad to begin the season, and his 4.14 ERA and 18.6% strikeout rate in 10 starts last season doesn't exactly scream "future fantasy stud." Let's take a look under the hood to see if a breakout is in play.

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History

As much crap as the Marlins have taken for trading away future stud pitchers (like Luis Castillo, Chris Paddack and Domingo German) they also did a good job of acquiring some as well. Lopez was plucked from the Mariners along with three other prospects for reliever David Phelps, a trade that is certainly paying dividends for Miami.

Lopez's minor league numbers are helpful when evaluating his control, which has always been excellent. In fact, Lopez never had a walk rate over 5% while in the minors, which certainly indicates that his 1.08 WHIP and 5.8% walk rate this season are legit.

While the minor league numbers help justify the control, they are all over the place when it comes to the strikeouts.

Lopez twice had a K rate over 20%, but was below 18% four times, and has generally flip-flopped between above-average/good strikeout numbers to considerably below average. That rang true in the big leagues as well, as he had a 18.6% strikeout rate in his first 10 starts during the 2018 season, and a 25% rate in his seven 2019 starts.

So the big question is if his strikeout stuff will stick in the major leagues. For that, let's take a look at his pitch mix.

 

Pitch Mix

Lopez has done most of his damage this season with his devastating changeup, which is generating a 50% o-swing rate, a 49.1% zone rate and an incredible 23.6% swinging strike rate, easily making it one of the best pitches in the big leagues.

He's gotten solid results from his curveball as well, with an 11.3% swinging strike rate and a .459 OPS by opposing hitters.

The problem? His fastball. Lopez throws both a four-seam fastball and a sinker, and each sits around 93 miles per hour. His fastball boasts one of the worst spin rates in the entire league, and his sinker is getting teed off on by opposing hitters, who are slashing .308/.400/.423 on the pitch.

However, even though Lopez's fastball doesn't move all that much, it has still managed a not-so-bad 9.5% swinging strike rate, and the .263 opponents average is buoyed by a .366 BABIP, which should come down.

That leads us to our next category...

 

Statcast Metrics

Lopez may have an inflated ERA, but there's a reason his FIP and SIERA are so good. His exit velocity and hard-hit rate both indicate that he has been among the top 30% in the league at preventing hard contact, and his XWOBA of .274 certainly paints a prettier picture for the young right-hander than his 4.03 ERA would suggest.

Of course, preventing hard contact is not everything when it comes to successful starting pitching, but being able to do that while also not walking people is definitely a recipe for success, especially when his secondaries are generating a ton of whiffs.

 

Verdict/Words of Warning

There are a few notable red flags in Lopez's fantasy profile for you to take note of before you blow your FAAB on him. For starters, he has a wicked low 6.3% HR/FB rate this season - which is very likely to experience some negative regression. xFIP, which accounts for a stable HR/FB rate, still pegs him as a 3.68 ERA guy, so it's not all bad. But something to be aware of.

Secondly, and this will become a factor later in the season, Lopez is probably going to be on an innings limit this year. His career high is 145.1 innings back in 2017, and he only threw 121 innings last season. I expect he'll be capped around 160 innings or so, which could cost him a few starts down the stretch if he keeps going deep into games.

Overall, Lopez is not as bad as his 4.03 ERA indicates, but he's probably more of a 3.64 pitcher than a 2.80 one. Still, a 3.64 ERA with a WHIP under 1.10 and a strikeout rate around 25% is absolutely worth owning in 12-team formats, especially this year, and is worth consideration as a streamer in 10-teamers as well.

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