Thursday, June 26, 2014

Random Ex-Brave: Javy Lopez

Very few catchers had a more memorable career with the Braves than Javy Lopez. A quiet man from Puerto Rico, Lopez became one of the best hitting catchers and clearly, from the attention from female Braves fans, great eye candy night in and night out. Recently elected to the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame, Lopez's career seemed over far too early, but he remains a figure to compare all Braves catchers to. Typically, this random Ex-Brave column gives me truly random people, not core players the Braves were built on. This is a little different.

Lopez was originally signed as an amateur free agent in 1987 and until 1992, he was not the hitter we remember him being. Even though he climbed into the top 100 prospects before the '92 season after OPSing .672 with Durham the previous season, Lopez was hardly an elite catching prospect. That all changed in 1992 when he hammered the Southern League to the tune of .321/.362/.507 with 16 HR. He finished the year in Atlanta, where he was the third catcher. He went 6 for 16 in his first taste of the bigs and was in the bullpen when Francisco Cabrera drove in Sid Bream to win the pennant.

1993 saw the 22 year-old return to the minors for more seasoning while Damon Berryhill and Greg Olson handled the catching position with defense and not a whole lot else. Richmond would benefit from Lopez spending another year in the minors as he belted 17 homers with a .845 OPS. Again, he would finish the season with the Braves, getting four starts down the stretch, including one on August 21st at Wrigley Field where he homered off Shawn Boskie for his first major league homerun.

After the season, the Braves moved to install Lopez behind the plate full-time and brought in veteran Charlie O'Brien as his caddie. His first season included 13 homers in the strike-shortened season, but he only on-based .299 over 303 PA. He did catch Kent Mercker's no-hitter on April 8th, 1994 and served as the catcher in 22 of Greg Maddux's 25 starts in 1994. The following season, O'Brien would take over and start 22 of Maddux's 28 games and the strange relationship began where Maddux, for whatever reason, preferred a different catcher than Lopez behind the plate.

It helped that Maddux's pitching was ridiculously good because he missed out on a lot of offense. In 1995, Lopez broke out offensively, slashing .316/.344/.498. He would hit 20 homers for the first time the following season and in 1997, he finally got to the All-Star Game after OPSing .895. While the Dodgers had Mike Piazza, Braves fans were very happy with their guy behind the plate.

Lopez would smack a new season-best 34 homers in 1998 and looked on the verge of an MVP calibar season, but injuries shortened his 1999 season to just 65 games. After a good bounce-back campaign for the 2000 Braves, Lopez's numbers slumped over the next two seasons, bottoming out with a career-worst 2002 where he hit just .233/.299/.372. Fortunately, he had an even worse hitting backup in Henry Blanco because Lopez looked like he was hitting an early twilight to his career.

After trimming down to just musle, Lopez came to camp in 2003 ready to reassert his name with the best-hitting catchers in baseball. The future free agent hit just .250/.282/.471 during the first month of the season, but would be an unstoppable force for the rest of the year. He finished the season with his first Silver Slugger, an All-Star appearance, fifth place in the MVP race, and a slash of .328/.378/.687. He also blasted a career-best 43 homers. One of them was a pinch-hit homer, but the 42 homeruns as a catcher broke Todd Hundley's seven year-old record for most homeruns by a catcher in a single season, a record that still stands.

The Braves had previously acquired Johnny Estrada ahead of the 2003 season and were looking to save salary so they allowed Lopez to leave Atlanta without so much as an offer. Lopez would land in Baltimore on a three-year contract that guaranteed the catcher $22.5M. His first season in Baltimore was a bit of a let-down, but still highly productive with a .872 OPS and 23 HR while utilizing the DH to play in a career high 150 games. Unfortunately, Lopez would start to break down in 2005 with a .780 OPS and only 103 games played. He even played his first two innings at first base. A pending free agent following 2006, Lopez did not have the same success of his 2003 walk year. Instead, he struggled to stay in the lineup and OPS'd .727 by August 4th when the Red Sox acquired Lopez. After a month of action with the Red Sox where he only OPS'd .485, the Sox cut Lopez in early September.

That winter, Lopez signed with the Rockies, but was cut before the 2007 season and it looked like Lopez's career would end. He would get a last chance with the Braves before the 2008 season. No longer looked at as a starting option, Lopez was a possible backup for new franchise catcher Brian McCann. However, the Braves preferred Corky Miller to Lopez and brought Miller north. Lopez couldn't throw out a single base runner that attempted to swipe second and even Lopez conceded that a backup catcher should "be able to throw every single runner out." Lopez officially retired before the 2008 season.

Ultimately, Lopez was a great hitting catcher who hammered 214 homeruns with the Braves during his 10+ seasons with the Braves while posting a .839 OPS. Sure, there have been many ties to steroids with Lopez and he just about admitted to such when he said that "I’d be stupid enough not to use" steroids. Still, Lopez was a beloved catcher with Atlanta, an amazing breaking ball hitter, and apparently quite handsome if you're into that sort of thing.

1 comment:

  1. There have been no credible ties of Lopez to steroids, and you are severely misrepresenting his quotation. Lopez was asked about players' attitude toward steroids in general and he was not referring to himself in particular (remember, too, that he is not a native English speaker). His 43-homer season in 2003 came after shedding 35-40 pounds and after two straight disappointing seasons. Lopez was not that muscular that year; he was just fluid and flexible, and he also made an adjustment to his batting stance that May that made all the difference. Really, compare Lopez's statistics to those of Mike Piazza's. Whereas Piazza 'somehow' managed to post spectacular seasons every single year in his prime, Lopez's performance fluctuated like that of most catchers in major league history, including Johnny Bench and Roy Campanella. If not fortified by steroids, catchers often wear down, break down, and struggle to maintain optimal performance. Lopez falls into that category, unlike Piazza, who optimized his offensive performance on a perennial basis as if he were a first baseman rather than a catcher.

    Gossip and innuendo by credulous fans on the Internet is meaningless.

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