Pablo López Added a Sweeper (If That’s What You Care To Call It)

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Pablo López is off to a good start in his first season with the Twins. Acquired by Minnesota from Miami as the centerpiece of an offseason deal that sent defending American League batting champion Luis Arraez to the Marlins, the 27-year-old right-hander has a 1.73 ERA and a 2.70 FIP over 26 innings. Moreover, he’s fanned 33 while surrendering just 15 hits and issuing six walks.

Trading in his cutter for a sweeper has played a part in that success. López has thrown his new offering 82 times — all against same-sided hitters — over four starts, and only twice has the result been a base hit. His Whiff% on the pitch is an eye-opening 50%.

The repertoire tweak was made at the behest of López’s new team, but the idea of a sweeper preceded his arrival.

“I first got the concept at Driveline in the offseason,” explained López, who logged a 3.75 ERA in a career-high 180 innings last year with Miami. “But I was only there for a short visit, so I couldn’t really capitalize on the concept of it. Then, in spring training, it was brought up again. From there we sat down and worked on it.”

The Twins wasted little time in suggesting the cutter-to-sweeper conversion. Which isn’t to say they knew exactly what the end result would look like.

“It was an introductory sit-down meeting where we talk about player goals,” explained Minnesota pitching coach Pete Maki. “One of the ‘stuff’ goals was to get more of a left turn on his cutter, which wasn’t really too different from his four-seam fastball. The cutter performance hadn’t been awesome [a .321 BA and .696 SLG last year]. Did we know it was going to be a ‘sweeper’? No. But some of his release characteristics lend themselves to some seam effects with a slider.”

López was fully on board with the idea, although much like Maki, he wasn’t sure what the pitch would ultimately turn into. To some degree, he’s still not certain. Not only is he still doing some fine-tuning, he admits to calling the new weapon a “sweeper” largely because it’s the term that was presented to him. Maki isn’t far removed from the same line of thinking.

“Some people call it a sweeper,” the pitching coach told me. “David Cone didn’t call it a sweeper. Dave Stieb didn’t call it a sweeper. José Berríos has a sweepy breaking ball that he holds similarly to a lot of the guys you see with a ton of sweep. Sweepers have been around forever, it’s just that now we know what leads to one. You can game for it.”

López isn’t looking for an extreme amount of sweep. He currently gets between nine and 15 inches — hence the continued fine-tuning — and to his mind, 10-11 inches would be ideal. Consistency is also a goal. Knowing how much the pitch will break would better allow him to visualize both the start and end points. Preferring shorter to longer is all about deception.

“If it’s too big, it’s too humpy,” said López. “It’s like with people who throw curveballs. You’ve heard ‘hump’ — like it’s easier to recognize — whereas the ones that come out like a fastball and then go down are what you want. The sweeper is the same thing. You want it to look like a fastball and then take a turn. That’s why I’m trying to finesse that release window, to find that sweet spot.”

The initial stages of developing the pitch came fairly easily. As López explained, and as Maki was fully aware, the righty’s arm slot is conducive to throwing a ball that moves east to west.

“There are guys who are over the top and have those bangers, those nasty curveballs, and then there are lower-slot guys like me where getting horizontal movement is a little easier,” said Lopez. “And now with all the resources we have, like the slow-motion cameras that show your hand positioning at release, it’s easier to know who is more suitable for horizontal movement rather than vertical.”

López feels that waiting for Maki to make the suggestion worked to his advantage. Had he tried learning a sweeper over the offseason — this after the Driveline bullpen session that planted the seed — he wouldn’t have had the hands-on instruction he found to be invaluable. The setting was ideal for another reason. As López put it, “In spring training, all we do is throw baseballs.”

What would have happened had the better-than-ever hurler not been traded to Minnesota, but rather remained in Miami? Would he have learned a sweeper?

“Maybe,” López said in response to that question, a pregnant pause preceding his answer. “It’s hard to tell, because I don’t know what their plan would have been for me trying to get something that went glove side. I’m sure they would have asked me, and I would have said the same thing — I got the concept at Driveline — and maybe we’d have gone to work. But it’s hard to know.”

What López does know is that turning a not-so-good cutter into a sweeper — if that’s what you care to call it — has made him a better pitcher. Right from the start, he had an inkling that it would.

“When I heard it for the second time, I thought, ‘This must be a good pathway to something,’ said López. “Hearing it from Driveline, and then from the Twins, I figured that it could be good. I worked on it, and that’s what happened.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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1 year ago

You jinxed him. Got destroyed by the Nats, of all teams.