Let’s imagine the Nationals drafted a right-handed amateur pitcher out of high school two years ago, in the second round or so. He would be 20 now. Pretend he throws his fastball in the high 90s consistently, occasionally hitting 100 miles per hour, as he punches up a 1.47 ERA in the South Atlantic League, where he’s about two years younger than the average player. Scouts would drool over him. He would be popping up on prospect lists. You would know his name.
The Nationals have a pitcher almost exactly like that. There are only two differences: They didn’t draft him from an American high school. They signed him for a small sum out of the Dominican Republic, and so no fanfare surrounds him. His name is Reynaldo Lopez.
Inside the Nationals’ front office, it’s likely no players have incited more excitement this season than Lopez. The hype, they believe, will come in due time.
“He’s someone who’s made tremendous strides this year,” Director of Player Development Mark Scialabba said. “Last year, we started seeing the velocity improve. He’s certainly turned some heads this year with the way he’s commanded his fastball to both sides of the plate.”
Lopez began this season at Class A Auburn, rookie ball. After seven starts, in which he accumulated a 0.77 ERA, they bumped him to Hagerstown. In seven starts with the Suns, Lopez has a 1.47 ERA. Overall, Lopez has struck out 30, walked eight and allowed 23 hits in 72 2/3 innings, going 6-3 with a 1.11 ERA.
The Nationals always knew Lopez had “an electric arm,” Scialabba said. His rapid ascension this season began with a mechanical adjustment in the spring. It helps him repeat his delivery for better consistency, and it also put him a position that made him both stronger and more deceptive.
Lopez’s high velocity alone does not make him stand out. What makes him stand out is the way he controls it and, especially, the way he can continue throwing hard deep into starts. In his most recent start, he touched 98 and 99 miles per hour in the first inning. He stayed at 94-97 throughout, before ramping back up to 98 in his final inning.
“What’s really remarkable about his performance is that he maintains the velocity,” Scialabba said. “Every outing, he looks better and stronger.”
Lopez has added depth to his breaking ball and has been working on his change-up. He does not compile huge strikeout totals, which the Nationals view mostly as a positive sign. He controls his fastballs down in the zone, with a downward angle that produces grounders and quick outs. “He’s driving the ball down at 96, 97,” Scialabba said. “Weak contact is really what we’re seeing.”
Another unique aspect to Lopez, and another reason why he has flown under the radar, is his height. His 6-foot frame is considered short, especially for a right-handed pitching prospect. In their amateur drafts, the Nationals have mostly focused on selecting tall, long-limbed pitchers. But that’s not a hard-and-fast rule.
Assistant general manager Bob Boone, a big league catcher for two decades, frequently drops an aphorism when the topic of a pitcher’s height arises: “I have never in all my years got in the box and said, ‘Oh, good, a short guy.’ ” The only thing that matters is what the ball does once it leaves the pitcher’s hand. Even at his height, Lopez can create a menacing, downward angle with his fastball, thanks to the way he creates leverage with the front half of his delivery.
Despite a lack of external buzz about him so far, Lopez may well be the Nationals next high-level pitching prospect, a pitcher whose name everyone may know soon enough.