I walked up to Jose Lopez yesterday morning and greeted him with a line I’ve never used before.
“I want to write a good story about you,” I told him.
Lopez looked at me with surprise. He isn’t used to very many of those any more. Two nights earlier, he’d stood grittily by his locker and answered questions about how he’d helped blow a game with an error that indirectly led to four runs by the Texas Rangers. Didn’t make someone else come out and face the music for him, which teammates, by the way, almost universally detest doing for a guy.
I haven’t had many nice things to say about Lopez the past 11 months or so, either. Part of me wasn’t certain he’d get another chance with the team this season after what he did last year, when he was one of the worst everyday players in the major leagues. He got a pass on some of that, rightfully so, after continuing to play every day despite the June death of his brother in a motorcycle accident.
Beginning this season, I wasn’t sold on Lopez as an everyday player. If you check the ballot box from our spring training supplement, you’ll see I ticked off the “No” box when it came to the Lopez question. He still makes mistakes in the field that will blow your mind from time to time. That make you think he isn’t paying attention to the game.
But those, the other night aside, have decreased as May rolls along. And what has returned, at least so far, is the bat we saw from Lopez the first two thirds of the 2006 season. It’s not his .315 batting average that has me impressed. He’s been up near .300 for much of the year, but it was an empty .300.
Not so much right now.
Going into play today, Lopez has a .424 slugging percentage, which is tops among all American League second basemen. His on-base-plus slugging percentage of .737 is fourth-best among the second basemen of 14 teams in his league. Even his on-base-percentage, long his personal bugaboo, has climbed back up over the .300 mark to .313. That latter stat is key to gauging his overall performance. No team can contend for anything with too many guys under .300. When Lopez is off, it’s because he isn’t getting on-base.
As little as a week ago, he was under .300. And I pointed him out as one of the guys who needs to step things up, along with Yuniesky Betancourt, for this team to right itself. Lopez has indeed stepped it up over the past week, even as his team was going through a 2-5 stretch. He managed to bat .400 with an on-base percentage of .429 and a slugging percentage of .643.
That’ll get your overall stats up in a hurry. For Lopez, it’s gotten them up to a point where he can no longer be ignored. A glance at the Baseball Prospectus web site sees Lopez with a Value Over Replacement Level Player (VORP) of 8.5. That trails only Raul Ibanez as the second biggest position player contributor on this team. Ahead of even Ichiro.
Lopez’s base numbers had always been just high enough to put him close to a breakthrough during the first five weeks of the season. But there was always the sense that they still were not enough. Especially with that sub-.300 OBP. Want to look for warning signs of a bad hitter? Start with that.
I don’t want to crow too loudy about his .313 OBP either because it’s still nothing to pop corks over. But if he can maintain his OBP where it is and continue to slug at this rate — his seasonal rate, not what he’s done the past week — then the team will have its every day second baseman for years to come. It took one monster week to push his numbers over the top (and one week can make a difference this early on) but Lopez now seems to be finding a comfort zone of sorts.
At this point, the decision to bat him fifth in the order looks genius.
In five games since he moved up there, Lopez has hit .500, going 10-for-20 with three doubles and a triple. That’s four extra base hits in five games. Jose Vidro used to produce that many extra-base jobs in a month as a full-time DH who was hitting fifth. The team badly needs this kind of production. To get it from a second baseman is huge.
So, for me, writing something positive about Lopez, which will go into tomorrow’s paper (at least, that’s the plan for now), was an easy call. I enjoy these pre-game interviews, by the way, a whole lot more than anything done post-game. This is where you do the real legwork and find out the interesting stuff. The post-game interviews, as many of you have written in recent days, are indeed filled with fluff and soundbites, mostly geared towards radio and TV. I agree it’s often garbage-in, garbage out. I don’t need those to write stories. None of us who have actually worked in the the newspaper business, reporting on baseball from the field, really believes it is all that important to our jobs. Sure, it’s nice to talk to somebody after the games, but there are 24 other guys around, not to mention the manager. And if nobody speaks, it makes the story even that much more interesting and revealing. But when you mess up in a game, or get the big hit, or play a key role, or do something unusual for you (good or bad), most players understand it is part of being a professional to at least show your face. And on the teams I’ve covered, players get tired pretty quickly when they are the ones who have to walk into a clubhouse — usually just to put their street clothes on — only to be surrounded by cameras and radio microphones because the real target of the media throng that night is nowhere to be found. I remember a player on the last team I covered being openly mocked by teammates in the clubhouse because of those antics. He was traded soon after.
So, it was good to see Lopez face the music when he messed up. But even better, for my purposes, to be able to talk to him without TV lights blinding his eyes, or the pressure to give cohesive soundbites.
What did I learn? That when he was playing winter ball, prior to this season, his team kept shifting him around the batting order quite a bit. He was usually batting third, fourth, or fifth, he told me. That’s why, right now, he doesn’t feel uncomfortable at all hitting from the No. 5 spot.
“You have to produce there,” he told me.
And produce he has. Whether it’s hitting one of his plethora of sacrifice flies (check out how many M’s have failed to do that with a runner on third and less than two out this season), or getting the extra-base hit, or even reaching base — period. Lopez’s hustle down the line in yesterday’s seventh inning is what caused Ramon Vazquez to hurry his throw to first on what became a two-base error.
Lopez being on second base, instead of first, or, even sitting in the dugout, is what caused center fielder Josh Hamilton to charge in on a Jeff Clement line drive — not wanting it to fall in for an RBI single — only to have the ball go over his head for a game-altering triple. Had Hamilton stood still on-contact, that’s likely a flyball out to center. See how much difference Lopez hustling up the line made in the game? This is a great game that way. A little can result in a lot. Last August, Lopez is probably sauntering up the line for a groundout. Not now. He is more focused, even when he boots the occasional grounder.
He has to be. He’s playing for his career right now.
Lopez isn’t out of the proverbial woods just yet. His biggest fades the past two years came in the second half. We’re far from being at the halfway point just yet. So, the jury is still out. But you can’t argue much with what he’s done.
My biggest doubts about Lopez heading into the season are also, strangely enough, part of what I most like about him. This guy is awfully nice. I mean it. He seems very sensitive, but in a good way. I doubt that there’s a jerk bone anywhere in his body. Some guys are overconfident. If anything, he’s underconfident and it probably hurt him last season.
My biggest regret is not taking him up on an offer to visit him, his girlfriend and his newborn baby at his home in Venezuela in October 2006. I had planned to go and he was expecting me there and had offered to take me on a tour of the city. But when I arrived in Venezuela, I found out that the main bridge from the airport to Caracas had collapsed. That meant it would take a three-hour detour by car to make the usual 30-minute journey, unless you were to get up at 3 a.m. to do it (rush hour statrts about 4:30 in Caracas).
It would have taken a plane ride to get to where Lopez lives, even after making that long trip to the airport. It came down to a choice between visiting with Lopez, or making another trek from Caracas to visit with Felix Hernandez. I had hoped to do both, but time constraints (because of the dumb bridge) made it impossible. I’m glad I stopped by to see Hernandez — and his wonderful family, Mom, Dad and daughter pictured below — and the resulting story was one of the things I’m more proud of having done since arriving here.
You learn a lot about guys when you see them away from the park. In that case, I learned that Hernandez can be very shy at times, even when he’s trying not to show it.
So, enjoyed that visit.
But I think Lopez would have made for an interesting story in his own right. Maybe some other time.
And believe me, it is painful to be critical of this guy. Because he is, as I’ve mentioned, a truly decent human being. But we can’t pick favorites in this business and his play had made it necessary to be highly critical of him. Doesn’t diminish him as a person, in my eyes. But he was dragging the team down. Like I’ve said before, you can’t cherry pick in this business.
I do detect a change in Lopez this year. An inner toughness. When you think about it, how can someone not be toughened after what he’s had to endure this past year? I’m not saying he acts tough. Deep down, he’ll always be that same, nice, sensitive guy. But he does seem tougher, while still being nice. Raul Ibanez is a very nice guy who has the ability to be mentally tough when he has to be. I see some of that happening for Lopez. He does not seem “soft” as I was beginning to suspect he might be last year. And if he can stay mentally tough, even while being a nice guy, then my ballot for him in our next spring training supplement might have to be changed to the “Yes” side.
We’ll worry about that later on. For now, he’s worth saying something nice about.
Oh yeah, by the way, Felix Hernandez’s VORP as a pitcher is 9.9, the highest among the team’s hurlers. That’s why it’s been so confusing for some of us to see him allow 24 hits and 11 walks over his last three starts. That’s more than two baserunners per inning and an average of only 5 1/3 innings per start compared to nearly eight nightly innings in April. Something isn’t working for him. Here’s to hoping, for his team’s sake, that Hernandez puts it together again.
He’s got great potential. And without him, this team is going nowhere fast — as we’ve already seen.
ADDED NOTE: 12:54 p.m.: For Jeff in the comments thread, who somehow feels I’m defending Jose Vidro: “In five games since he moved up there, Lopez has hit .500, going 10-for-20 with three doubles and a triple. That’s four extra base hits in five games. Jose Vidro used to produce that many extra-base jobs in a month as a full-time DH who was hitting fifth.”
Please folks, we’ve gone over this the past few weeks, if you’re going to comment on the posts, read them first. Don’t skim. It will add to the quality of discussion, which has taken a downward turn along with the ballclub.
3:24 p.m.: For Mironos in the comments area, thanks for the compliment. To answer your question, all I can say is the entire point of why I wrote what I did the other night about Felix Hernandez is summed up in the last sentence of the copied paragraph you’ve included at the bottom your post. That’s all. It has nothing to do with accountability to me, or the media, only to the teammates (usually catchers) who are forced to answer on his behalf when he purposely avoids requests to come out. I can’t spell it out any more clearly than it’s been written in that sentence. If you still want to say it’s about me feeling dissed by him, which I personally have never been in a one-on-one situation, I can’t stop you. There are only so many ways to write down for you that I don’t care about post-game interviews. Writing it 50 more times won’t change anything either. Some people dislike the media to begin with and will interpret everything they read from that slant, look for hidden, or non-existent vendettas and do anything they can to avoid what’s right in front of them. Not saying that’s what you are doing, by the way. What I was doing, was spelling out and offering insight on the broader implications of something that’s been going on with Hernandez and was not a one-time occurance the other night, or beginning last week. And I didn’t think it was the greatest thing to be happening with one of the youngest guys on a team going down the tubes and playing like a collection of individuals. If you want to read into it from a narrower perspective, that’s your right. But you’re asking me and I’m telling you that it’s not where I’m coming from. Where I’m coming from is written down in front of you, in that final sentence you’ve copied. I’m not trying to be confrontational. Just spelling it out.
4:02 p.m.: For PTBred, it’s because sacrifice flies don’t count against batting average but do count against on-base percentage. When you get a lot of sac flies and don’t draw walks, the quirky on-base over average thing can happen. It’s rare.