KC Royals: The Royal dilemma that is Jorge Lopez

The KC Royals have a young pitcher with exciting stuff. Because he has yet to establish himself as a starter or reliever, he poses a significant dilemma. His role needs to be determined.

On September 8, 2018, early in the final month of a dismal season for the KC Royals, Jorge Lopez took the mound at Minnesota’s Target Field for his fifth Royals’ start since coming over from Milwaukee in the trade that made Mike Moustakas a Brewer. A pitcher long on potential but short on results, Lopez was looking to make a second straight good impression on his new club.

Six days earlier, Lopez had decisively earned his first win as a Royal–and only the fourth victory of his career–limiting Baltimore to one run in seven innings and striking out eight in a 9-1 Kansas City victory. The impressive win came after Lopez lost each of his first three KC starts.

The Minnesota night was mild, but Lopez wasn’t. His stuff electrifying, Lopez was in command from the start, so much so that he took a perfect game into the 9th inning. Never before had a Royals’ pitcher flirted with perfection so late in a game.

Lopez lost his perfect game, and then his no-hitter, when he walked 9th inning lead-off man Max Kepler and surrendered a single to Robbie Grossman. The KC Royals still won 4-1, and Lopez had another impressive win. But in his next two (and final) starts of the season, Lopez lost form. He gave up 9 nine hits and three runs in 4.1 innings against the Twins in KC before Detroit battered him for seven runs on eight hits in an embarrassing start that lasted only an inning.

Those four September starts, and the three straight losses he suffered after joining the Royals, constitute the dilemma that is Jorge Lopez–his consistent inconsistency provides the club with no definitive answer to the question of how to use him. His role going into 2020 is unknown.

Lopez had no firmly established role with the Royals in 2019: he started, then relieved, then started. Although his repertoire, including a fastball, curve, sinker, and slider, can at times be electrifying–especially his breaking stuff–his failure to put together long stretches of effective work caused the Royals to shuttle him back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen.

He opened the season in the rotation and made nine straight starts; in that span, the longest stretch of starts he’d make, Lopez was 0-5 with a 6.29 ERA. He struck out 48 and walked 19. He then made a two-inning, two strikeout, no-hit, no walk relief appearance before giving up five runs on six hits in a one-inning start on May 25; not surprisingly, it would be over two months before Manager Ned Yost entrusted him with another start.

In the interim, Lopez made 18 relief appearances; in 33.1 innings, he struck out 31, walked 10 and posted a 5.13 ERA. Then, after two starts in which he went 1-0 but gave up six runs in 6.1 innings, Lopez relieved twice more before finishing the season with six consecutive starts. He won two, lost two, struck out 20 and walked six. His ERA was a troubling 5.68 over 30.1 innings.

But one ghastly start skewed Lopez’s numbers in that final six-start span. The Twins battered him for seven runs on eight hits in just 2.1 innings; without that game, his other five season-ending starts would have yielded a 3.48 ERA and 2-1 record.

Pitching coach Cal Eldred simplified Lopez’s delivery and believes his fastball and other pitches gained critical movement, and Lopez says he became more comfortable in September. But Lopez’s season stats tell an unfortunate story: he finished 4-9 with an unsightly 6.33 ERA (75 ERA+), 5.55 FIP, and 1.472 WHIP. His strikeout rate was 7.9 and he averaged slightly more than three walks per nine innings.

Although Lopez saw considerable work as both a starter and reliever, his numbers provide little guidance as the Royals ponder how best to use him in 2020. His ERA’s–6.57 as a starter and 5.79 as a reliever–were both unacceptable. Opponents had too much success against him in either role, batting .287 when he started and .284 when he relieved; his 1.494 starting WHIP and 1.420 relief WHIP were both high. Even his strikeout and walk numbers, while acceptable, were close: 9.2 SO9 as a reliever and 7.4 as a starter, and 2.7 BB9 out of the pen and 3.2 when starting.

Simply put, Lopez hasn’t distinguished himself as a starter or reliever for the KC Royals. Although he wasn’t the only KC pitcher to disappoint last season, his occasionally extraordinary stuff makes his inability to establish a role even more discouraging and frustrating. What to do with him remains a difficult question; that the club recently signed an established reliever–Trevor Rosenthal–and two other hurlers who have recently relieved more than they’ve started–Braden Shipley and Jesse Hahn–suggests Lopez may get another crack at the rotation.

The KC Royals believed they were getting a promising pitcher with crackerjack stuff in the trade that sent Mike Moustakas to Milwaukee in 2018. Promising September starts, together with the club’s recent acquisitions of relievers, may prompt the Royals to give Lopez another shot at the starting rotation. But if he doesn’t find success there, and the bullpen remains crowded, Lopez’s time in Kansas City may run out.