August 14, 2012
Wilton Lopez: Closer Sleeper
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of hosting a BP Ballpark Event with my podcast co-host Paul Sporer and fellow BPer Jason Parks in Houston. Attendees peppered us with questions for 45 minutes before we gave way to the honored guests of the day: former Baseball Prospectus writer Mike Fast and Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow. I have known Fast for a long time, dating back to our days conversing at RotoJunkie.com (now rjbullpen.com), but it was my first interaction with Luhnow. As a child that grew up in Houston, I still follow the team from my Florida home, and it was enjoyable to listen to a strong communicator like Luhnow talk about both the process and the vision that he is cultivating for his organization right now. I left the room truly feeling that the downtrodden franchise was headed in the right direction and things were not as bad as they seem in the midst of a 4-34 stretch.
Things may indeed seem bad in Houston these days, but Jose Altuve is not the only fantasy asset worth owning in Houston. Even though the team does not win many games, their newly anointed closer Wilton Lopez is definitely one to watch as you keep one eye on the final weeks of the 2012 season and the other on your 2013 draft prep.
Lopez was originally signed as an amateur free agent by the Yankees in 2002 and was released early in 2007, at which time he was picked up by the Padres. The Padres placed Lopez on waivers in 2009, and the Astros claimed him and put him in a swing role at Double-A Corpus Christi, where he started 15 of the 29 games, allowed many more hits than innings pitched, and struck out just 69 hitters in 110 innings. His player profile in Baseball Prospectus 2012 had this to say:
Despite having ulner nerve irritation, 2009 waiver find Lopez turned in another very good season of relief for the Astros. He actually improved on his strikeout rate, and after his arm returned to normal, he walked just five batters in his final 47 innings of work. His four-seam fastball tops out over 95 mph, but he's at his best working down in the zone, generating ground ball rates over 50 percent. Easily among the most overlooked relievers in baseball.
In his three season s as a major league reliever, he has been effective as a strike-thrower who keeps the ball in the ballpark with a very strong groundball rate, but he had just two saves in 194 games with the Astros. Still, his numbers during that time have been rather impressive for a middle reliever:
His player card shows that he has maintained low-90s velocity throughout his career on a fastball he has thrown 75 percent of the time. This season, he has maintained that ratio while continuing to pound the lower regions of the strike zone.
In Lopez, we see a pitcher with an increasing strikeout rate who has kept a steady groundball rate, thus limiting his home runs and consistently posting a low opponents’ batting average. In fact, look at how he lines up against someone like Fernando Rodney from a numbers perspective this season:
The dominating strikeout rate is the one skill that Lopez lacks when compared to other closers in baseball, but it is tough to argue against his track record and his success in 2012. Should Lopez remain the team’s ninth-inning man next season, Lopez could be a late-round selection that could bring back a nice return on investment. If you play in a keeper league right now, it would be prudent to check on his availability while his owners are frustrated with the lack of saves.