Twins

Can Pablo Lopez Cement His Twins Legacy In 2024?

Photo Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins begin their 2024 season on Thursday in Kansas City. It’s been a long off-season for a fanbase coming off their first postseason success in 20 years. Payroll discussions, an offseason full of low-wattage moves, and injuries during spring training have added to a mixed reaction from fans as the season begins.

Lost in the offseason discourse is that experts project the Twins to take the AL Central for the second consecutive season. And Pablo López is a big reason why the numbers break in Minnesota’s favor. Baseball America has the Twins opening day starter in 2024 as their favorite to win the American League Cy Young Award this year.

The Twins traded for López last year, and he racked up career highs with 194 innings pitched and 234 strikeouts. A 3.66 ERA and a 3.33 FIP, combined with López’s raw stuff, took his pitching to another level. He was top three in baseball with 234 strikeouts last season. Those numbers pushed him to finish top-10 in AL Cy Young voting in 2023.

López has an opportunity to cement his legacy as the first true Twins ace since Johan Santana this season. López was one of Minnesota’s best starters last season, and he’s had to work to earn league-wide recognition. However, his first hurdle was proving to the fanbase that he was worth the price of 2022 Batting Champion Luis Arraez. Fans weren’t happy to lose one of their favorite players for a pitcher who was not an ace with the Miami Marlins.

However, López quickly got fans to notice with a 1.77 ERA in his first four starts before that number rose to a 6.15 ERA with 8 home runs allowed over his next 8 starts. Meanwhile, Arraez was hitting .400 during López’s cold stretch. But López got back on track with a 3.15 ERA and 148 strikeouts over 122 innings, earning his first All-Star selection.

Still, parts of the Twins fanbase weren’t willing to hop on the López bandwagon until they saw him pitch in the playoffs. López flipped the narrative on the Arraez trade in the postseason. In a pair of playoff starts, he threw 12.2 innings while only allowing one run and striking out 10 batters against the Toronto Blue Jays and Houston Astros.

López started to earn fans’ and a national audience’s respect with his dominance. The Twins developed López from an above-average starter to a true ace. López added more heat to his fastball, throwing a 93.5 MPH average on the 4-seamer in 2022 up to a 94.9 MPH average a year ago.

However, adding a sweeper to his pitch mix changed everything. López made it his second-most thrown pitch (21.1 percent) while also being his most impactful. López became the poster child for the trendy new pitch. He had a 6-run value, a 36.6 whiff percentage, and an 81.3 MPH average exit velocity when throwing the sweeper, making it his most productive pitch. López’s success with the sweeper complemented his other secondary pitches with a 4-run value from his changeup and a 6-run value from his sinker.

In a way, López still hasn’t received the respect he’s due because Minnesota’s other top pitcher departed. Sonny Gray signed a three-year, $75 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals in the offseason, leaving a void in the rotation that the Twins never filled. They lost multiple starters, including Gray, a 3-time All-Star. Therefore, locally and nationally, people doubt that Minnesota’s rotation will be as strong as last year. Losing the AL Cy Young runner-up, who made 32 starts with a 2.79 ERA while only allowing 8 home runs, is challenging for any rotation.

People also weren’t talking about López becoming a true ace because they were focused on losing Gray to St. Louis. Gray was excellent in 2023, but it’s unlikely he can replicate those numbers this season, especially since he is starting the year on the injured list. Gray is also unlikely to sustain his innings totals from a year ago while keeping his home run numbers down.

López can put together another good season and show the fanbase he is a bona fide ace. It may seem controversial to put López over Gray, but López has demonstrated that he has a higher ceiling. In the 32 starts last year, López threw 194 innings compared to Gray’s 184. López also threw 51 more strikeouts than Gray.

Rocco Baldelli believed López was more trustworthy than Gray. López was the opening-day starter in 2023 and lined up ahead of Gray in both playoff starts last year. It’s not a knock against Gray but a statement of Minnesota’s confidence in López’s ceiling as an ace.

Despite Minnesota’s success last season, there are still areas in which López can improve this season. Keeping the baseball in the ballpark will always be an issue for López. He had a 25.3 percent flyball rate, the highest of his career and above the 23.5 percent league average. That alone isn’t concerning, but López allowed a career-high 24 home runs during his first season in Minnesota. Most of those home runs came off the fastball in 2023, allowing 11 long balls off the heater in 1,043 pitches.

But the changeup, which was once López’s strongest pitch, landed him in a surprising amount of trouble with homers last year. Opposing batters hit 6 home runs on the 638 changeups López threw last year. The changeup’s spin made the changeup an effective pitch for López. But hitters have punished the pitch when he throws it too far over the plate. However, opponents hit the changeup at a 9-degree launch angle, which may indicate that it was an outlier. In 2022, he threw the pitch 1,029 times in 2022 and only allowed 8 home runs.

Pablo López was the Twins’ most talented pitcher in 2023. It wasn’t easy every step of the way, but he continued to develop in Minnesota. López proved he was worth trading Arraez to Miami. Then he proved he was better than a household name over the last decade in Gray. Now that he has overcome those narratives, López has a wide open path to a strong encore season in Minnesota and claim the undisputed title as one of baseball’s ace pitchers.

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Photo Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

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