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May 14, 2013

Punk Hits

Javier Lopez Learns BABIP

by Ian Miller

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This might come as a shock to you, but there are some players who don't value advanced statistics.

I guess I always figured that major-league baseball players would try and take advantage of every possible strategic advantage, and a knowledge of statistics – his own, or a competitor's – can give a player an edge. So I was surprised to have my attempts to talk stats rebuffed by a couple of different Giants players before their game against the Braves last Friday night.

“I don’t believe in any of that,” Hunter Pence told me. "I find that it gets in my way. I'd rather just focus on the moment of competition, how my body's feeling, and my plan of attack against whoever's pitching that day."

Chad Gaudin's response was similar when I asked him about some vagaries of his PITCHf/x data. "If it has anything at all to do with stats, I'd rather not do it. I don't wanna know about it." Stats just get him all up in own his own head, he told me, and he feels like he can't afford to let anything distract him from the task at hand.

But Javier Lopez is different.

“I’m learning my sabermetrics,” he told me, when I informed him that he’s entered the day with an almost incredibly high BABIP of .458. “BABIP, what’s that, walks and hits or something? No, that’s WHIP. What’s BABIP?”

I tried to break it down for him and explained that his ERA should by all rights be much lower than its then-current 3.24, especially given a K rate of over 25 percent (now down to just under 24 percent).

"I’ll be sure to tell the manager that," he quipped.

Maybe it's the stage of his career that gives him a different perspective. Like Gaudin, Lopez is in his 11th season. But whereas Gaudin has bounced around seven teams in the past six years, Lopez has settled in and owns three World Series rings. "I'm on the back end of my career, and I'm just trying to enjoy this as much as I can," he told me. "Early on I really used to grind, often to my own detriment, and now I just try to take it as it comes."

He certainly seemed laid-back while we talked. Lopez was thoughtful and forthcoming when I asked him about his pitching approach.

"I try to change the pace as much as I can, and try and dictate the hitter's bat speed," Lopez said. Because his fastball sits in the mid-80s, pitch sequencing is critical. He depends heavily on his two-seam fastball, and throws a change up (primarily to righties) and two sliders: a small slider that typically comes in in the low 80s, and a slower, sweeping slider that's death on lefties. His goal, he says, is to keep hitters off balance and induce weak contact.

"If I'm locating my sinker down in the zone, I can afford to let guys hit it and let the defense make the plays behind me. We have a great middle infield, and when you’ve got some outfielders who can run some balls down, it makes it a little easier to pitch. Especially in a ballpark like this [AT& T Park], you’re not scared to let ‘em hit it as hard as they want."

I asked Lopez how his sweeping slider can be so effective even when hitters know it's coming. The change in arm angle gives the pitch away, and if he gets two strikes on a lefty, you can almost guarantee he’ll throw it.

"I'm always trying to set that pitch up," Lopez said. "I don’t really just try and stay away against a lefty. I want to show him something in and maybe get that shoulder to open up and maybe have him run out of bat on the pitch away."

A left-handed pitcher with that kind of arsenal would typically end up as a LOOGY, but Lopez has proven himself effective against righties as well. In fact, although Giants' skipper Bruce Bochy often goes to Lopez to face tough left-handed hitters, he's faced nearly as many righties as lefties over the course of his career.

"If they need someone to come in and get a punch-out against a righty, I'm probably not going to get the call. But if I'm facing a righty, I'll throw straighter stuff -- sinkers, changeups, my smaller slider -- pitches that I feel I can put where I want." The smaller slider is especially effective at keeping right-handed hitters off balance. "I have a more consistent release with that, and it’s right out of my fastball slot. So I think hitters see that and at the last second, it darts away."

I asked him if he's ever tempted to throw the wipeout slider to right-handed hitters, back door, to try and steal a strike or get them to roll over on it.

"I won’t do that too often, but I’ve done it. Especially if it’s a highly leveraged situation, I would probably go with a stronger sequence that I’m more comfortable with. That sweeping slider has a lot of room for error, so I try not to throw it in high-leverage situations." Spoken like a true sabermetrician.

That night against the Braves, the Giants built a commanding 8-2 lead and Lopez was brought in to finish the game with one out in the ninth. He threw two pitches – both sinkers – and induced a ground ball from Freddie Freeman for a 4-6 fielder’s choice and a fly ball to right to retire Dan Uggla. Just like that, his BABIP was down to .423 and dropping, whether he remembers to check it or not.

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

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