Who’s the real Jose Lopez?
Yuniesky Betancourt has been a frequent target for criticism this year, but in terms of wins, Jose Lopez is hurting us even more. The M’s are 1.7 wins below replacement level in the middle infield so far (-1.0 for Lopez, -0.7 for Betancourt). Even with Betancourt’s terrible defense and complete lack of clue at the plate, Lopez has been the worst player on the team so far.
Last year, Lopez made significant progress offensively, encouraging many of us who’ve believed in his potential. While he wasn’t going to be more than average defensively, he was still relatively young and cheap, an above-average hitter for his position, and maybe he could still add some power as he matured. This year, he’s fallen off a cliff. So what’s happened?
There are a lot of ways to look at this, each of which is just one part of the puzzle. But put together, they suggest why replacing Lopez needs to be just as much a priority as replacing Betancourt.
Let’s start with the “Lopez came into his own in 2008” theory. As Dave has frequently pointed out, you can’t just ignore his performance in previous years. A lot of people have wanted to excuse his horrible second half of 2007 because his brother died in June and he had a hard time concentrating on baseball after that. That wasn’t the real Jose Lopez, we thought. I admit to believing that myself a bit. Well, we’re far enough into the season that sample sizes aren’t quite so small anymore, and this Jose Lopez is a lot like that one:
Jose Lopez, post-ASB 2007: .213/.238/.281
Jose Lopez, 2009: .216/.259/.307
Pretty close, and if you added in his slightly-better-but-still-bad performance from mid-June (when his brother was killed) to mid-July 2007, the two are virtually the same. Some of that’s bad luck (identical .232 BABIP), but even allowing for some regression, it’s the real Lopez now and it was the real Lopez then. I’m not saying 2008 wasn’t real too, but it’s increasingly looking like Lopez’s peak, not something we can count on him to repeat year after year.
Other things are going on that are new this year, though. Here are some batted ball numbers for Lopez as a full-time player:
He’s hitting line drives the same as always, but his groundball and flyball percentages have completely flipped. Meanwhile, those flyballs are turning into home runs at the lowest rate of his career. I’m not sure what’s going on here, but it’s as if last year convinced him to change his swing to go for more power, while at the same time the power itself has disappeared. We may still see some drift back to Lopez’s career norms, but in general these percentages tend to stabilize pretty quickly, and we’re approaching the point where we have to look at this as a meaningful change. I’m not saying the way for him to be successful is to beat the ball into the ground like Ichiro, but Lopez will never be a big power hitter. If he thinks he is, we’re in for a lot more fly balls to the warning track.
Meanwhile, there’s the question of his defense. His UZR/150 at second base:
You have to consider fielding metrics over multiple years, so we can’t just conclude that he’s as bad as it looks this year, but he’s certainly no better than average. And you definitely have to be worried about the appearance of a trend here (much like Betancourt). The real Jose Lopez is a below-average second baseman, and the sooner we can upgrade at that position, the better.