In the Dominican Republic, where baseball represents a way of life and an escape from the poverty-stricken country, young players seek to impress American scouts with an aggressive playing style that distinguishes them from the rest.
Hard-throwing, free-swinging athletes are a product of this culture. Yet, those skills alone don’t always translate to professional baseball in the United States.
Charlotte Knights right-handed pitcher Reynaldo Lopez, a 23-year-old from the Dominican city of San Pedro de Macoris, initially struggled learning that.
Coming up in the Washington Nationals’ organization, Lopez said he always threw with maximum effort in the bullpen. His starts played out the same. And when games went awry and his frustrations mounted, he threw harder.
“Some of the guys at higher levels,” said Lopez through an interpreter, “always told me, ‘Hey, you have a strong arm and you throw hard. But once you get to these levels, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw. They’re still going to hit you hard.’”
Lopez gradually grasped the importance of commanding his pitches – a skill he’s still developing. Yet, that was just one of many lessons he’s learned on his way to becoming one of baseball’s most promising pitching prospects.
Lopez started his playing career as a catcher. But one day when he was 17, he filled in at pitcher and threw 92 to 93 mph fastballs for strikes. His manager subsequently convinced him to switch positions.
Many top international prospects sign at 16. However, Lopez was 18 when the Nationals offered him $17,000 after a 2012 tryout.
Growing up, Lopez said his primary exercises included running, up hills or with a tire tied to a rope around his waist. But upon arriving in the U.S., he was introduced to supplements, proteins and training methods that were unavailable back home.
“I was only 160 (pounds) when I first signed,” said Lopez, who now weighs 185 and is 6-foot. “They said, ‘Being 160 and throwing that hard, if you can get a little heavier you’re going to start throwing harder and build your body strength.’”
Lopez’s velocity increased as he added muscle. But in 2013, his throwing elbow started hurting and his velocity dipped.
Doctors diagnosed Lopez with weak bones. He made just two starts that season, which he mostly spent rehabbing and drinking milk.
“When I was younger,” Lopez said, “my grandmother always told me, ‘Drink milk. You need your bones to be strong.’ I always said, ‘All I need is my food. I’m strong. I’ll be all right.’
“At the end of the day I learned milk is important.”
As Lopez worked on building strength, doctors held him out of baseball activities. Several nights went by, he said, when he stayed inside his room, consumed with sadness.
But when he returned to the field in 2014, his time away proved beneficial.
With a stronger arm, Lopez posted a 1.08 ERA over 16 starts at two different levels, helping him ascend the prospect rankings. Back trouble limited his effectiveness in 2015, but he rebounded last season.
Lopez made his Major League Baseball debut with Washington on July 19, 2016, touching 100 mph with his fastball. He pitched in 10 more games (five starts) for the Nationals and showed flashes of his potential despite a 4.91 ERA.
At times in Washington, Lopez said he’d joke with his catcher during a game. Pitching coach Mike Maddux, Hall of Famer Greg Maddux’s brother, realized that and stressed that Lopez focus.
“He pulled me aside after some of my starts,” Lopez recalled, “and said, ‘Listen, you’ve got four days after your start where you can joke around and have a good time. But the day of your start is the day where you need to be focused every pitch.’”
The Nationals traded Lopez and two other prospects to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Adam Eaton in December. And so far this season, few could question Lopez’s focus.
‘On the brink’
Lopez, baseball’s No. 39 overall prospect, according to MLBPipeline.com, made five starts for the White Sox during spring training, registering a 3.72 ERA.
One of Chicago’s goals for its rebuilding project is for Lopez and its other top prospects to stay in the majors once they arrive. Thus, despite his spring training success, Lopez began the season in Charlotte.
He struggled in his first three outings with the Knights. But entering Friday night’s home start against the Buffalo Bisons, he was 5-0 with a 2.08 ERA over his past six.
Still, some evaluators believe Lopez might project better as a reliever than a starter because of concerns regarding his size, delivery and command.
“Could he pitch out of the bullpen in the big leagues right now with his stuff? Well, yeah,” said Steve McCatty, Charlotte’s pitching coach. “But there’s a lot of guys who could.
“You always want to build starting pitchers because those are a lot harder to come by than a guy who can go out there and throw it for one inning.
“In that regard, he’s really interesting.”
Lopez said he’s dreamed of being a big-league starter. And in hopes of achieving that, he continues working on his focus and throwing his curveball ahead in counts.
“If the White Sox decide they want to make that adjustment for me and they need me to be a reliever, then I’ll be a reliever,” Lopez said. “But I’ve always stayed focused on thinking about being a starter and putting up good numbers as a starter.”
And with the lessons he’s learned, Lopez could be on the brink of exactly that.