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Community Projection: Jose Lopez

The ninth in an alphabetical and irregularly updated series of seasons-in-review for each of the players we predicted last winter. (All entries are linked in the right-hand sidebar, below the LL Exclusives.)

LL Community: .268/.307/.425 (n=22)
PECOTA: .270/.306/.429
Bill James Handbook: .264/.295/.418
ZiPS: .257/.291/.402
Marcel: .258/.303/.409

Actual: .282/.319/.405

On August 1st, Lopez stood at .276/.316/.428. "Wow," we said, "save for a handful of singles, LL was spot on. Way to go, us." And we were pleased with ourselves.

Only, the season didn't end on August 1st. No, there were still two months left for Lopez to completely throw everyone off, and after an awful August during which he didn't draw a walk Lopez turned into a .323-hitting singles machine in September, pushing his final season line to what you see above. An unusual path for a promising 22 year old player to take, to be sure. LL very accurately predicted what the Jose Lopez with whom we were familiar would do in 2006, but what we didn't know at the time was that the coaching staff would set about attempting to change his swing in an effort to make him a different hitter.

I don't think we actually heard about those intentions until February or March, around the beginning of ST. You remember - all that chatter about how Lopez needs to start "hitting the other way" in order to become a more complete offensive threat. It sounded fine in theory (who doesn't want to be able to hit the other way?), but I think a lot of people laughed at the idea that Lopez needed to change his approach to be successful in the Majors. Clearly, whatever he was doing was good enough for AAA, where he hit for average and power in a big Tacoma park at a remarkably young age. Consensus opinion was that Lopez had taken his lumps over his first two half-seasons in Seattle, and that he was ready to establish himself as a legitimate everyday player.

And that's exactly what he did, at least for a few months. He started the year with seven hits in four games and stood at an .815 OPS after going deep against Kansas City on June 2nd. He wouldn't hit another homer in the month but he kept producing courtesy of a bunch of doubles and triples, earning himself a spot on the AL All Star team for his efforts. Everyone was proud of our little second baseman for growing up so fast, and the future seemed even brighter than it had just the previous March. At that point, there was every reason to be pleased with Lopez's development.

Unfortunately, that's when things started going south. Technically I suppose it actually happened a little earlier, but the slump didn't really begin in earnest until after the break, when it became abundantly clear that Lopez's power had disappeared. Because he was no longer making up for it with doubles or triples, people started to notice that Lopez still hadn't homered since June 2nd, a distressing signal that something was wrong. For the entire month of July Lopez didn't have a single extra-base hit. Then he bottomed out in August, with a whopping five doubles and zero walks. Lopez wasn't just a struggling young infielder anymore; he was a problem. He hit the ball on a line from time to time and his batting average was okay, but without walks or power it was completely devoid of value.

By September Lopez's lack of pop had become something of a running joke. He made it all the way to 113 homerless days before hitting a wind-aided pop-up off Neal Cotts for his tenth bomb of the year (Hit Tracker Online had it at 344 feet, and 310 without the breeze). He was hitting a bunch of singles and his average got all the way up to .289, but again, his late-season performance was empty and unsustainable. Jose Lopez drew attention to himself for his power, not his ability to make contact, so to see him end his 2006 season as Jason Tyner came as a bit of a disappointment.

More disappointing still was something Lopez himself had to say shortly before his tenth home run:

"I'd like to get No. 10, I would," Lopez said. " ... But really, it's not that important to me. I started the season trying to hit the ball to the opposite field, and I've managed to do that. I think I'm a better hitter now than I was when I started the season. I'm a lot more consistent."

Jose Lopez through June 2nd: .286/.315/.500
Jose Lopez after June 2nd: .280/.321/.348

I realize that June 2nd is sort of an arbitrary date, but still, the point is clear - Jose Lopez was a much better hitter early in the year than he was towards the end. His line drives went up a couple percentage points, which is probably why he felt more consistent in the second half, but they came at the expense of fly balls that were either hitting or clearing the fence.

The worst part is that, while you don't like to hear Lopez say this sort of thing, he probably wouldn't have even though about trying to hit the other way all the time if not for the coaching staff, which was determined to fix what it perceived as a significant problem. While I think the Mariners have generally been pretty good in terms of how they mold their young players (for example, they've let Felix and Betancourt do their thing without much in the way of intervention), they missed the boat in this case, as they've decided to focus on one of Lopez's alleged shortcomings rather than trying to make him better at what he already does (pull the ball, hit for power). The result is that the guy they have on their hands now is a totally different hitter than the one they had six months ago, with this one hitting singles on the ground instead of doubles and homers in the air. Look at the following GB% by month:

April: 48.9%
May: 43.7%
June: 41.1%
July: 43.3%
August: 57.1%
September: 55.8%

By the end of the year, when Lopez was feeling the most comfortable, he was one of the more extreme groundball hitters in baseball. Ever wondered what Ichiro would look like without all the footspeed? There you go. By trying to inside-out the ball more often and slap it into right field, Lopez was generating less bat speed and lift, and the results were what you see above.

So now we're left with the problem of trying to figure out what path Lopez'll take in the future. And I have to admit, I'm more than a little concerned that the changes he made last summer may be permanent. After all, both he and the coaches seem to be pleased with the results. I've never really bought into the "Lopez = Elite Prospect" thing, and I don't think he has a future in the Hall, but left alone I didn't see any reason why he couldn't top out as a productive second baseman whose strongest asset is his power. Now, though, I'm not sure if we'll ever actually get to see that player develop.

From this point forward, I think there are four possible options for what the future has in store:

  1. Lopez continues being a groundball-hitting singles machine.
  2. Lopez reverts back to what he was in April.
  3. Lopez maintains his opposite-field approach but makes a few adjustments that allow him to hit for more power.
  4. Lopez flames out.
I don't think #4 is very likely at all, although with Lopez's notoriously poor work ethic, the risk's always there. That leaves us with 1-3, but I don't know what probabilities to assign to each. Simply put, I have no idea which Jose Lopez we're going to see in April 2007. I'd rather see #2 than #1, but at the same time #3 is sort of the best-case scenario, as it would allow Lopez to become a latter-day Bret Boone, a right-handed hitter who doesn't get killed by Safeco's horrifying left-center power alley (Lopez's road OPS was 148 points better than it was at home).

There are two different methods by which Lopez may achieve #3 - either he keeps hitting the other way and learns to lift the ball, or he resumes lifting the ball to left and learns to hit the other way. I don't know which is better, although my gut instinct is that the latter is preferable. So if Lopez comes out next April as #1 or #2, we can't automatically rule out the possibility of his becoming #3, because either one could lead there in the end.

Whatever the case may be, though, I think it's clear that the Jose Lopez we all want to see, and the Jose Lopez that produces the most runs at the plate, is the Jose Lopez that's hitting balls off and over the wall. For whatever reason this managed to elude the coaching staff last year, with the results being a totally messed-up hitter who looked nothing like the guy we expected. Because he's so young and not finished developing, there's still a lot of untapped potential left in Lopez's bat, but I'm way less comfortable predicting what the future has in store now than I was last May, precisely because of the adjustments that were made to Lopez's swing.

Really, it's up to Jose Lopez to decide what kind of player he wants to be. All we can do is hope he makes a good choice.