Amidst the chaos that has been this last stretch for the Marlins, few positives have come to light. One of the good things to see last night was the debut of Jose Lopez, who started at second base and played the entire game, contributing a double along the way. He also started this afternoon at third base as well against left-hander Cliff Lee. The Marlins picked him up on Friday of last week and was placed on the Triple-A roster temporarily, but he was immediately brought up within the week.
The Fish bringing in Lopez was a wise move. His performance yesterday aside, Lopez had an awful start to the 2011 season with the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies picked him up this past offseason in a trade with the Seattle Mariners, with whom he suffered his worst season of his professional career in 2010. Lopez was a bounceback candidate in 2011 coming off a season with a .239/.270/.339 slash line and a career worst .254 BABIP. The Rockies were interested enough to send $3.6M to Lopez for the 2011 season, which may have been a questionable move given his poor season and complete loss of power, but with the Marlins the risk is far outweighed by the potential benefits. The Fish will only pay Lopez a prorated minimum salary, thus leaving no risk for them in case Lopez does not return to his 2008-2009 levels. And despite the loss of power from last season, there might still be a chance that he will return to something akin to those two league average seasons from years ago.
Balls in play similar
Here is the drastic difference between Lopez’s actual 2010 season and the likely expectations based on his previous three seasons.
The biggest differences were obviously in batting average and power. When looking into the “Four Factors” (plus ISO), only those factors have really changed.
The almost identical strikeout and walk rates basically show a potentially fluky BABIP situation in 2010. How could the power loss have come about? The HR/FB rates in 2007-2009 had been growing progressively, a believable trend given Lopez’s age. The 2010 drop was sudden, but as you can see in the spray charts from 2009 and 2010, it was not as if Lopez lost actual pop in terms of distribution of batted balls.
Aside from the actual home runs (all to left field), it is difficult to tell the difference between the two plots. There were slight differences in the categorization of the balls, as it seems Lopez went more to center field than left or right. Obviously his power lies primarily to his pull side to left field, as evident by his .250 ISO to left field as compared to .040 and .071 to center and right field respectively for his career, so perhaps the loss of some of those pulled balls robbed him of home runs and doubles that would have otherwise occurred.
Oddly enough however, it seems that Lopez did not lose that many doubles, as his doubles/triples rate remained close to his three-year mark. What was primarily lost was the home runs and a one percent loss in singles rate, all contributing to a massive drop in batting average and power. The power is back up a bit in 2011, but his .225 BABIP did not help his case in Colorado. Hopefully regular playing time in Florida can help ease himself back into a comfortable role.
The Marlins have had to bear some pretty ugly play at third base this season. Between Emilio Bonifacio and Greg Dobbs at the hot corner, flashbacks of Jorge Cantu are not all that far off (though no one could be as bad a third baseman as he was). Lopez, however, seemed like a halfway decent player at third base according to the defensive metrics. TotalZone had him at +17 runs last season, while UZR had him at +8 runs. Of course, the Fans did not think highly of his defense at third base, but when combining the defensive metrics along with the Fans, the combined defensive ratings were very positive for Lopez’s season in 2010.
Whether or not that defense is likely to stick remains to be seen, but the Marlins can afford to hedge their bets on a bounceback for someone like Lopez while they wait for Matt Dominguez to be ready. The team is looking for some return of the old offensive level Lopez displayed in 2007-2009, and based on this analysis, there is a decent possibility. The reality is that the players the team is sending out there right now are not much better and they have nothing to lose in throwing another name into the competition.