Pablo López has a pair of good throwing partners as he waits for baseball to return. The 24-year-old Miami Marlins right-hander has a Colombian catcher in his neighborhood, and a retired Venezuelan physician encamped in his spare bedroom. His relationship with the former is paramount to his future, and with the latter, a portrait of his past.
López is living in Miami, where he returned after spring training was abruptly halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. His priorities in camp had been a continuation of his offseason efforts, which came on the heels of a promising, albeit uneven, 2019 campaign. Despite a queasy 5.09 ERA — his FIP was a healthier 4.28 — López is projected to land a spot in the Marlins’ starting rotation.
For now, all he can do is keep his arm fresh with the help of the backstop and doctor.
“I’m going to this warehouse that has a turf area about 150 feet long,” López told me late last week. “They have portable mounds we can use, and I’m there three times a week. Outside of those three days, there’s a green area close to my community and I go out and play catch with my dad.”
Danny López grew up playing baseball in Venezuela. His own father, Pablo’s grandfather, coached him during his teenage years. Medical school then squelched any possibility of pursuing a professional career, but he did continue as an amateur. According to Pablo, his father “played for a company — big companies had their own league — and while I never got to watch him play, I hear that he was pretty good.”
Rather than follow in his father’s footsteps, Pablo went in the opposite direction. Accepted to medical school upon graduating from high school — at age 16, no less — the multi-talented son opted instead to sign with the Seattle Mariners. Five years later, he was traded to Miami.
One of his Marlins teammates is his other throwing partner.
“Jorge Alfaro is living here, and one day we happened to go to the same [facility] without telling each other,” López told me. “Now, every time I have to get up on the mound, Jorge tells me to let him know and we make it happen. It’s cool that I get to work with him. It’s not the season, but at the same time he’s getting the feel for me, and for my pitches. When the time comes, our chemistry will be there.”
When spring training was halted, Marlins pitchers were told not to build up from where they’d left off, but also to not lose what they’d gained. As a result, López is performing a bit of a balancing act. Attempting to emulate game-like conditions is part of the process.
“We were up to 60 pitches when they shut us down, and while I’m not going that many — 60 pitches is a lot of throwing — but I am trying to do two or three innings,” López said. “I throw eight warmup pitches, then face three hitters. I do 12 to 15 pitches, then get off the mound and get feedback from the catcher. Five or six minutes later, I go back on the mound.”
The Cabimas, Venezuela native isn’t throwing with 100% effort. Not wanting to empty the tank with a resumption (hopefully) looming, he’s applying just enough intensity for his pitches to move like they’re designed to. He’s also sequencing. If the count on one of the imaginary batters is 1-0 or 2-0, he’ll deliver the next pitch accordingly. And with Alfaro calling balls and strikes, unfavorable counts are more frequent that you might expect.
“He’s got a tight strike zone,” López said with a laugh. “Sometimes he’s not so helpful. I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re even framing the pitch. Why are you calling that a ball?’ He’ll be like, ‘Well, I’m just trying to make you better.’”
Improving his curveball has been a focus. Acknowledging that he tended to telegraph it last season — “it was coming out of my hand on a loop, like a hump” — López wants to make the pitch tighter, with improved tunneling a primary goal.
That process began with a return to square one.
“When I’m learning a pitch, I like to get the feel for it first,” López told me. “I started on one knee, 35-45 feet away, and wanted to keep a loose arm action. I just wanted to see the spin on the ball. At that point, I don’t care if it’s breaking or not; I just want to see the right spin. Then, little by little, I would put more hand speed on it. It’s the hand speed and release point that are going to make that tunneling happen, and still keep the depth.”
Those objectives were largely accomplished prior to the righty’s reporting to Jupiter. Once he arrived in camp, the focus shifted toward the specific shape of his curveball. Wanting more glove-side movement, he set out to add a slider-like characteristic to the pitch. That was López’s “work-in-progress” when spring training came to a screeching halt in mid-March.
Thus came not only his throwing sessions with Alfaro, but the more casual ones with the strong-armed outfielder turned medical professional. And while father and son are playing catch two or three times a week, that doesn’t happen until the elder López has pored through updates on the life-altering pandemic.
“My dad retired six years ago, but having been a doctor he’s pretty tuned into everything going on,” López explained. “Every morning he’s reading news about it. He’s keeping tabs on all the cases, especially back home.”
Danny López is currently unable to travel home due to pandemic concerns; once that’s possible, he’ll return to a country struggling to deal with COVID-19 amid an already-tenuous infrastructure. Venezuela’s current restrictions are even more stringent than those in the United States.
“Unfortunately, Venezuela doesn’t have the health system to really handle that situation right now,” Pablo told me. “So they’re being pretty strict when it comes to social distancing. Right now, you can only go outside from 8 am until 2 pm. Before or after that, police officers are making sure there are no people outside. Only one person per household can go out to get the groceries. It sounds pretty strict, but I think it’s working.”
Like everyone in baseball, López hopes to be back to work soon. That will mean no more games of catch with his father — at least not until the next visit — but it’s a tradeoff both will happily embrace. It’s safe to say they’re hardly alone.