We can just skip the whole background section, right? To many, Lopez's improvement as a hitter is a sign of things to come. To others, Lopez is a decent but by no means extraordinary bat that is approaching a plateau. Figuring out which it is will be of considerable importance as the Zduriencik front office works to move the team forward. So: is Jose Lopez turning into the guy a lot of people thought he'd be back when he was a prospect, or is the likelihood that he's just about maxed out?
I'll try to be as brief as possible.
The first thing to understand is where Lopez is as a hitter right now. And for this, it's imperative that you're able to look past the round, pretty 25 home runs he just hit. Over the last two years, Lopez has posted a .765 OPS, a .327 raw wOBA, and has been 0-5 runs above average after adjusting for park. Perfectly acceptable, of course, but far from great; for all intents and purposes, he's been about as good as Fred Lewis. Nobody considers Fred Lewis a great hitter or anything, right? Okay.
Now, Lopez has made it abundantly clear that he prefers to be aggressive at the plate. He's consistently posted above-average swing rates and O-Swing rates, with his Z-Swing rates fluctuating between average and above-average. What this means is that, while Lopez likes to swing, he doesn't always have the best judgment. Which should come as a surprise to no one. He's not exactly an injudicious hacker or anything, but he's a free swinger, and both Chone Figgins and Adam Dunn drew more unintentional walks in 2009 than Lopez has drawn since 2004.
Plate discipline doesn't usually change very much over a player's career, at least not until he gets old. You'll see some guys make incremental improvements and other guys lose their feel, but by and large, if you're aggressive when you come up, you're aggressive through your peak. With Jose Lopez, then, we shouldn't expect to see him learn a different approach. Better numbers could make pitchers throw him fewer pitches in the zone, but he's unlikely to get much better at identifying what's a strike and what's a ball. He is what he is.
Not drawing a lot of walks means that an aggressive hitter is leaving a source of potentially significant value on the table. In order to be successful and productive, then, he has to make up for this by doing one or some or even all of the following:
(1) Make contact
(2) Run well
(3) Put the ball on the ground (closely related to #2, really)
(4) Hit for power
Vladimir Guerrero is perhaps the most obvious example of a hacker who's made it work. He's made it work by, throughout most of his career, pulling off #1, #2, and #4. Alfonso Soriano's gone with #2 and #4. Ichiro, of course, favors #3 over #4 to go with his #'s 1 and 2, allowing him to beat out a ton of grounders. It's a different path, but not necessarily a worse one. The point is, aggressiveness, on its own, is not a problem. You don't have to be Nick Johnson if you want to have a career.
Now let's look at how Jose Lopez does here:
(1) Check. Lopez's career contact rate is 86%, well north of the ~80% league average. He's a free swinger, but he's a free swinger who's able to get the bat on the ball an awful lot.
(2) No dice. Lopez may have stolen 31 bags as an 18 year old, but these days he's a big boy. Not that I'd call him slow or anything, but his 12 infield hits last year tied him with Kevin Youkilis, Dunn, and Jason Bay.
(3) Not anymore. Lopez used to have an above-average groundball rate, but he's trended away from that, finishing just outside the bottom third in 2009.
(4) Check, sort of. Lopez hit 17 homers in 2008 and 25 homers in 2009, posting a .191 Isolated Slugging Percentage well above his career mark. This power has been what's elevated Lopez from what he was in 2006 to what he was this past season.
In order for Lopez to improve on what he was in 2009, he could improve his discipline. Conceding this as unlikely, however, he then would have to improve on one or some of those four points. Looking at them again:
(1) Lopez's contact rate is already high, and his rate in 2009 was not significantly different from his rates in 2005 or 2006. I find the suggestion that Lopez could make more contact than he already does to be dubious.
(2) Players don't get faster. As Lopez ages, he's only going to lose footspeed, not gain it.
(3) Possible, but then since he's not blessed with the best speed, this isn't going to help him anyway.
(4) And now we've gotten to the heart of the matter. Those who say Lopez's star is only on the rise believe that he's packing more power potential. Those who say he's near his ceiling don't see it.
So which is it? Just how much more power can we expect to see out of Jose Lopez going forward?
The thing about power spikes is that, generally, they don't come out of nowhere. They're preceded by flashes of power to all fields, and occasional glimpses of considerable strength. Wladimir Balentien, for example, only hit seven homers this year, but his 489-foot dinger off Daniel McCutchen was the longest hit by anyone all season. This is evidence that, while Balentien's far from a complete hitter, he has the potential to drive a lot of pitches out of the park. One also notices that, of Balentien's 15 career homers, six have gone up the middle or the other way. Combine these bits of information with his famously long swing and I don't think anyone would be surprised if a year or three from now he ended up on or near the longball leaderboard.
There are signs. Which makes me wonder, where are Lopez's signs?
Yes, he hit 17 homers in 2008 and 25 homers in 2009. Each added significantly to his previous career high. But home runs, by themselves, don't necessarily tell you that much. How is his actual *power*?
To answer this, I think we realistically only need to consider three things:
- Jose Lopez has hit 70 home runs in his Major League career. He has pulled 66 of them to left field. Three have gone up the middle, and one has gone the other way. Every single one of his 42 homers these last two years has gone to left.
- Hit Tracker Online provides data going back to 2006, covering 63 of Lopez's 70 home runs. Six of them had a standard distance of more than 400 feet. The longest came in at 415. The fastest, meanwhile, came in at 109.8mph off the bat.
- He has a pretty quick, compact swing.
Lopez isn't weak. Weak guys don't hit 25 homers while spending half their time in Safeco Field. But when you go through the data, you can't help but feel like, if Lopez were packing more power potential, he would've demonstrated that ability at least a couple times at some point. Where are the deep flies to right field? Where are the two or three fastballs he just stepped into and slaughtered to left? It's clear that Wlad has a high power ceiling. We know that Franklin Gutierrez has some raw strength. But Lopez? Rob Johnson hit a ball 430. Mike Carp hit a ball 426. Jose Lopez has yet to hit a ball beyond 415, with the majority of his homers just clearing the left field fence.
When you go through Lopez's numbers looking for signs of more power, what you come away with are signs to the contrary - indications that he doesn't have much further to go, suggestions that perhaps even reaching 25 was a stroke of good luck. Of all the players to hit at least 25 home runs in 2009, Lopez had the lowest average distance, finishing just below other anomalies Ben Zobrist and Aaron Hill. Just because he hit 25 doesn't mean this is his new level of true talent. If anything, I'd say that we should project Lopez to hit for a little less power next year, not more. Because he just hasn't flashed the kind of ability more befitting a 25-homer sort of guy.
I don't want to say there's no chance, and I certainly don't intend to convey the impression that I think Jose Lopez is bad. As far as the former is concerned, unlikely doesn't mean impossible - baseball analysis is just probability. And as for the latter, Lopez has been a ~league-average player these last two years, and at 26 years old, there's little reason to believe he's about to get worse. This is, after all, supposed to be his career peak. He's a fine player.
It's just...Jose Lopez has been teasing Mariner fans since he was a teenager, but at this point, I think we have enough evidence to say that he's probably not going to turn into a big-time power threat or run producer. There's always a chance that he develops more pop, and who knows, he may even get better at telling balls from strikes, but the odds say he's better suited for a supportive role, rather than a featured one. And that's something that, as they examine all the different possibilities this offseason, Jack Zduriencik and his assistants are going to have to take into account.