Reynaldo Lopez’s ability to maintain velocity built during offseason program

Right-hander Reynaldo Lopez took a major step forward in July and August last season. After some early struggles at low Single-A Hagerstown, Lopez went to short-season Single-A Auburn and was able to make a mechanical adjustment in his throwing motion that turned his season around.

Nationals minor league pitching coordinator Paul Menhart, along with current senior baseball advisor Spin Williams and pitching coaches Tim Redding and Sam Narron, worked with Lopez to adjust his release point. Lopez finished the season with a surge. In his final 10 starts at Hagerstown, he went 5-1 with a 0.63 ERA, 52 strikeouts and 14 walks.

“He was just one of those ones that figured out the proper positioning to release the baseball that really maximized his great arm speed,” Menhart said. “He had his legs and everything else in the proper position to deliver the baseball at that very high velocity. All the rest of his pitches are average to above average across the board.”

A lot of starters can come out and deliver the velocity in the first three frames. But the ones that can pitch at the next level can keep that velocity in their fastball in the fifth and sixth innings. Lopez was able to accomplish that, another key to his big season. One reason was his strength.

Menhart said the pitcher needs to build strength in December and January, and right now in February and March.

“It all starts in the offseason throwing program and what we do with them in spring training,” Menhart said. “We really teach fastball use and fastball command to the degree to where they understand that this is what is going to get you through the season. It’s going to get you through an outing. That’s where it all starts. The foundation is built through the offseason through the offseason throwing program. We carry that through to spring training where we have a progression.”

Menhart said that progression, where they build the command of the fastball in bullpen sessions, helps the pitchers gain strength in order to maintain endurance to get through a whole season.

Menhart said strikeouts get a lot of the publicity, but they want their pitchers to get the batter to hit the ball on the ground with weak swings. Strikeouts are good and all, but if they can get the hitter to swing early in a count, that helps the pitcher stay in games well into at least the fifth or sixth innings.

“We have a philosophy here that your arm actually gets more tired the more pitches you throw,” he said. “So if you pound the zone with your fastball to force contact and develop that aggressive mentality, you see that you can last longer. You start throwing your pitches and try to miss bats, you are not going to maintain that endurance throughout an outing. So it is a mindset.”

The pitching coaches are always watchful of that per-inning pitch count, looking to get early contact so they can record three quick outs and get back to the dugout.

“Without a doubt. We want contact within the first three pitches,” Menhart said. “We are not trying miss bats. We are trying to get the guys to hit the ball softly. That’s our job. Strikeouts come. That’s fine. Those are more gravy. Keep the pitch count down and stay strong throughout (the outing).”

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