It has been a rough month and a half for Pablo Lopez, who began the season as one of Major League Baseball’s top pitchers.
It has been a rough season overall for Trevor Rogers, who entered the year coming off a runner-up finish in the National League Rookie of the Year race in 2021.
And that has put the Miami Marlins in a rough place.
With injuries to the back half of their rotation — Jesus Luzardo, Cody Poteet and Edward Cabrera are all on the injured list with uncertain return dates — the Marlins are leaning on their top three starting pitchers in Sandy Alcantara, Lopez and Rogers to carry the bulk of the responsibility in the rotation.
Alcantara has lived up to the billing, leading MLB in innings pitched (106 1/3) and entering Tuesday ranked third in the majors in ERA (1.95), fifth in batting average against (.195) and sixth in walks and hits per inning pitched (0.95).
Rogers and Lopez, meanwhile, have been anything but that.
Rogers, the 24-year-old lefty, has a 5.86 ERA over 63 innings through his first 14 starts. It’s tied for the fifth-worst ERA among pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings this season. He has already given up 10 home runs this season after giving up just six all of last season.
Lopez, meanwhile, has fallen considerably since being named the National League Pitcher of the Month in April.
Through his first seven starts of the season, Lopez had a minuscule 1.05 ERA to go along with 46 strikeouts against eight walks over 43 innings. Opponents were hitting just .175 against him and had a .469 on-base-plus slugging mark.
In the eight starts since then, including Monday when he allowed five earned runs in five innings in a 9-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, Lopez has a 4.84 ERA with 42 strikeouts against 16 walks. Opponents’ batting averages have jumped to .256 against him in this stretch. Their OPS is up to .825. He has allowed eight home runs after allowed just two in his first seven starts.
“We need our guys to be good at all times,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “We’ve hit a little bit of a hiccup with that. The other guys have got to pick us up.”
The two have expressed frustration and disappointment about their performances, both about not living up to expectations individually and about not putting the team in a position to be successful.
“It’s definitely been a grind,” Rogers said, “but I always try to look toward the future, where I want to be. I want to be the best and I know it’s tough right now to see that, but this is going to help me grow probably more than I even know not getting the results.”
Lopez added: “As a starter, you want to be the guy that the team can count on every fifth day. Night’s like [Monday], when I only go five innings, it really stinks. It really sticks with me that I wasn’t able to provide that support.”
So, what has happened to the two? What are the root causes of their struggles? Let’s take a look.
Rogers’ fastball command
Rogers’ biggest issue has been his fastball command. He’s at his best when that pitch is at the top of the zone.
According to Statcast, opponents are hitting just .226 (7 for 31) with two home runs when he gets his fastball to the upper-third of the strike zone or the peripheral area around the top of the strike zone.
Everywhere else? Opponent batting average on the pitch jumps to .354 (35 for 99) with seven home runs.
He has made strides on this front, with his fastball location improving in both of his starts against the Mets despite still getting shaky final results. Rogers is trying to find that balance between being pleased with his execution but still striving for the results that need to come with that.
“You’ve really just got to take it in stride,” Rogers said. “You can’t let your emotions take over. I try not to do that the best I can. We really just break it down like make a good pitch. ... As soon as the ball leaves my hand, I have no control over it. I can make good pitches, but this is the way this game goes sometimes.”
But there’s more to it than just one pitch. Rogers’ underlying metrics are down more or less across the board this season compared to what he did in 2021.
▪ His strikeout rate is down from 28.5 percent to 20 percent.
▪ His walk rate is up from 8.4 percent to 10.7 percent.
▪ His swing-and-miss rate is down from 30.7 percent to 26.6 percent.
▪ Opponents are also chasing pitches out of the zone at a slightly lower rate (27.1 percent compared to 29.8 percent in 2021) but are making much more contact on the pitches they are chasing (65.9 percent compared to 52.5 percent in 2021).
Lopez leaning into the strike zone
A couple facets of Lopez’s game have impacted his results as of late.
Let’s start with his best pitch: The changeup. Month over month this season, opponents have been faring better against the pitch.
Opponents went from hitting .129 against the changeup in April to .161 in May to .256 in June. This includes three home runs against the pitch in June. Swing-and-miss rate against the changeup has fallen from 46.9 percent in April to 40.3 percent in May to 37.6 percent in June.
Lopez’s cutter, his No. 3 pitch behind the changeup and four-seam fastball, has been getting exposed as he uses it more. Lopez only had seven at-bats end with a cutter in April. Opponents were 0 for 7 in those at-bats. In May, they went 6 for 19 (.316 batting average) with two doubles, one triple and one home run. In June, it was 6 for 17 (.353 batting average) with one double, one triple and two home runs.
More of his pitches in the strike zone are landing near the heart of the plate as well, which plays to the batter’s advantage.
“I think hitters are able to look at certain areas of the strike zone where I’ll be,” Lopez said, “and if I see that they might not be swinging and reaching then you find yourself as a pitcher catching more of the strike zone because you’ll find yourself in 1-0, 2-0 counts and then you want to go back into the strike zone. You want to be fine, but you also want to be on the attack, so I think sometimes wanting to be too fine or too perfect gets you behind in the count.”