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Friday, April 28, 2006

Better Know a Red #12 - Felipe Lopez

In part 12 of our 25-part series, we turn our attention to the Reds' exciting 25-year old shortstop, Felipe Lopez. Lopez was originally drafted as the 1st-round pick (8th overall) of the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1998 amateur draft out of Lake Brantley High School, Altamonte Springs, Florida. Interestingly, he was drafted only one slot behind now-teammate Austin Kearns. Lopez rose quickly through the Toronto minor league system, reaching the majors in only four years at age 21. He never secured a full-time job in Toronto, though he was generally adequate at the plate when he was given playing time.

On December 15th, 2002, the Cincinnati Reds acquired Lopez as part of a wild 4-team deal. The Reds sent Elmer Dessens, who had been their best pitcher in '02, to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the deal. Throughout the '03 and '04 season, Lopez struggled to get playing time. His progress was slowed by the continued presence of Barry Larkin, as well as other shortstop prospects. In spring of '05, with Barry's retirement, Lopez competed with the newly-acquired Rich Aurilia for the starting shortstop position. Though he played very well in the spring, manager Dave Miley ultimately gave to job to Aurilia on opening day.

Nevertheless, when Aurilia was forced out with a minor injury in early May '05, Lopez was given the job and absolutely exploded at the plate. He hit 0.304/0.359/0.565 with 6 home runs and 19 RBI that month, and followed that up by hitting 0.333/0.364/0.543 with 5 home runs and 20 RBI in June. By the end of June, Lopez had secured his job beyond any doubt. He went on to win the Silver Slugger award among NL Shortstops, as well as make his first All-Star appearance. This year, the Reds are counting on Lopez to continue his reign as the best hitting shortstop in the National League.

For additional biographical information, please see Lopez's entry in Red Hot Mama's Human League.

Historical Stats (for explanations of the statistics used in this profile, please see the Baseball Statistics Quicksheet):
Year/Team PA K/BB SB/% OBP SLG OPS GPA EqA VORP GB/LD/OF
2003/CIN-AAA 156 3.17 2/29% 0.333 0.399 0.732 0.250 0.229 0.4 ---
2003/CIN 227 2.11 8/62% 0.313 0.299 0.612 0.216 0.223 -4.3 ---
2004/CIN-AAA 325 2.84 2/40% 0.329 0.423 0.752 0.254 0.237 2.0 ---
2004/CIN 293 3.24 1/50% 0.314 0.405 0.719 0.243 0.243 4.3 ---
2005/CIN 645 1.95 15/68% 0.352 0.486 0.838 0.280 0.282 45.8 39/14/18
In previous years, Lopez often struggled to make contact, with very high K/BB ratios even at AAA. His OBP and SLG were not terribly good, showing at best a mid-700's OPS. The thought among many onlookers was that he could hit well enough to be a slightly-above replacement level shortstop, but his propensity to make throwing errors might negate his offensive production. He was a guy who had great potential, but a lot of people, myself included, wondered if that potential would ever manifest itself.

He answered his critics with his amazing 2005 season. Finally getting substantial playing time, he dramatically lowered his k/bb rate (primarily by reducing his k-rate), and substantially elevated his OBP and SLG. Lopez's OPS and GPA were very respectable, especially considering his position. This showed in his enormous VORP, which, at 45.8 runs, was second only to Ken Griffey Jr. on the team, topping even Adam Dunn's position-specific production.

Overall, Lopez has proved to be a very dangerous hitter. He gets on base via hits and walks at a high enough rate to be well-suited to the top of the lineup, and also has enough power to hit in the middle of the order. There are a lot of teams on which Lopez would be a great #3 hitter; as it is, the Reds usually bat him second to take advantage of his special combination of OBP and power. It's a great spot for him, and he is truely a key member of the Reds explosive offense.

One potential weak part of his overall offensive game is his base running. While clearly he possesses good speed, his stolen base percentages have not been good over his career. Last year, his percentage fell just shy of the break-even point. However, he may have already improved this aspect of his game: at the time I write this, Lopez is 7-0 in stolen base attempts this season.

'03-'05 Splits:
Year/Team PA K/BB OBP SLG OPS GPA
vs Left 255 3.67 0.306 0.399 0.705 0.237
vs Right 842 2.06 0.349 0.453 0.803 0.270
Home 571 2.29 0.342 0.449 0.791 0.266
Away 585 2.28 0.333 0.412 0.745 0.253
Like many switch-hitters, Lopez is best as a left-handed batter. In the '05 season, Lopez hit 0.312/0.377/0.543 with 18 home runs against right-handers (407 AB's), but only 0.243/0.291/0.353 with 5 home runs against southpaws (173 AB's). Clearly his performance against lefties is one place where Lopez really needs to improve. One place to start is his contact; the 3.67 K/BB ratio vs. lefties over the past three years is really unacceptable. At this point, I'd consider pinch-hitting Aurilia for him if he were to come up against a left-hander in the 9th inning of a critical game. Nevertheless, one must remember that for all its brilliance, last year was Lopez's first full season of play at the major league level. The guy will turn just 26 on May 12. He has enough ability that he absolutely can improve this part of his game.

Lopez also hits better at GABP than away from it. A lot of this split was driven by last year's performance, when he hit 0.305/0.368/0.536 at home and 0.277/0.335/0.435 away.

Fielding:
Pos. Year Level DI's Dewan+- (plays/yr) DialZR (runs/yr) Gassko (runs/yr) D*G (runs/yr) Pinto (runs) Davenport (runs/yr) DP% (+/-)
3B 2004 MLB 32 --- --- --- --- --- -7 ---
SS 2003 AAA --- --- --- --- --- --- -18 ---
SS 2003 MLB 397 -27 --- --- --- --- -27 -13%
SS 2004 AAA --- --- --- --- --- --- -20 ---
SS 2004 MLB 391 -24 --- --- --- --- 7 -12%
SS 2005 MLB 1175 +0 -2.7 -20.1 -8.44 -0.750 -12 -5%
Fielding, unfortunately, is not Lopez's strong suit. Last year, all fielding statistics indicated that he is, at best, an average fielder (Dewan+-, DialZR), and many indicated that he was well below average (Gassko, Pinto, Davenport). Gassko's stat, in particular, indicated that Lopez was the third-worst defensive shortstop in the major leagues last year, with only Russ Adams and Michael Young being worse. The statistic I favor the most, John Dewan's Plus/Minus statistic, is kinder, ranking Lopez 18th out of 32 starting shortstops last year. Lopez's biggest problem appears to be moving to his right (toward third base), where he is rated at -19 plays over the past three years. In contrast, he has a positive rating on balls hit straight to him or to his left (up the middle). One has to wonder if this indicates he should play a bit closer to third base than he traditionally has. Another way in which Lopez has struggled is in turning the double play, converting 5% less chances than expected last year.

There is reason for hope, however. Dewan's statistic reported a substantial improvement in his performance between his '03-'04 numbers and his 2005 performance. With more experience, he may be able to continue to improve, particularly in terms of his positioning and anticipation. He also improved in the conversion of double plays, though still performed at below-expected levels. For their part, Baseball Prospectus's '06 Annual also predicts improvement in Lopez's defense this year:
Having an excellent arm and other plus defensive tools has not yet translated into being a good all-around defender in Lopez's case, as he has shown minus range; better positioning and experience should help in that regard.
I think the best we can hope for from Lopez this year is an average fielding performance. Occasionally one hears rumors of a desire to move Lopez to second base, where he might have a shot at being a plus defender. I think it's a good idea to consider, particularly with guys like Brandon Phillips and Rich Aurilia on the roster, both of whom can play an adequate to plus shortstop. Unfortunately, it's hard to move a guy from shortstop once he establishes himself there in the way that Lopez did last year, so I'm doubtful that this will ever be seriously considered.

Projections:
Year/Team PA K/BB SB/% OBP SLG OPS GPA EqA VORP
PECOTA75 562 1.95 11/65%) 0.352 0.459 0.811 0.273 0.274 34.4
PECOTA 545 2.12 10/67% 0.336 0.426 0.762 0.258 0.259 21.2
PECOTA25 466 2.33 8/73% 0.313 0.380 0.693 0.236 0.238 7.1
ZiPS 611 1.98 10/58% 0.338 0.444 0.782 0.263 --- ---
I'm surprised that the projections are so hard on Lopez. Even the good-case PECOTA projection (PECOTA75) indicates a decline in his power production. Of course, Lopez's numbers last year represented what is arguably his best season in professional baseball--majors or minors--so I guess this is somewhat understandable. Nevertheless, I'm not convinced that he's going to regress as severely as these numbers indicate. It's not like he doesn't have this level of talent; scouts have been expecting this sort of performance from Lopez since his first-round selection in '98. Indeed, even Baseball Prospectus's commentary in their '06 annual seems inconsistent with PECOTA:
Lopez had the breakout season we predicted last year, and, at 26, should be headed for even better numbers if the hammerheads in his organization stop focusing on his strikeouts and instead focus on ways to help him improve his hitting from the starboard side of the plate.
I would not be surprised to see Lopez to regress a bit against right-handers as pitchers are more careful with him. Nevertheless, I'm also expecting an improvement in his performance against left-handers as he gains more at-bats and experience against major league southpaws. Overall, I'm looking for a repeat of his overall numbers this season. I see the chance that he could fall back, but I think it's more likely that he will continue to improve. He's young, talented, and seems to have a new double-play partner for the next several years in Brandon Phillips if you believe the early returns. While Lopez has struggled defensively thus far in his career, he may still improve--and even if he doesn't, Lopez more than makes up any defensive shortcomings with his outstanding offensive production.

References:
Baseball Archive, The
Baseball Cube, The
Baseball Prospectus
Baseball Prospectus '06 Annual
Baseball Reference
Baseball Think Factory
CBS Sportsline
Fan Graphs
Fielding Bible
Hardball Times '06 Annual