MLB ace passed up medical school to dominate hitters

WASHINGTON — Late at night, especially following a subpar pitching performance, Pablo López’s mind can race, replaying pitch sequences and poorly executed offerings, perhaps a dash of doubt about his preparation, his well-crafted routine creeping into his mind.

And then morning will come, and López awakens to begin the five-day cycle of a starting pitcher once again and remember the lessons his parents conferred that helped make him one of the game’s most consistent pitchers the past five seasons.

“My dad was incredibly specific. Everything had a purpose,” López, the ace of the Minnesota Twins, says of his late father, Danny. “There was always some connection to any action he was doing.

“I feel like if I’m doing something, I need to connect it to something else that’s ahead of me – ahead, ahead, ahead in the future.”

López is just 28 years old, and in the first year of a four-year, $73.5 million contract with the Twins. Baseball will challenge him and humble him, gratify him and pay him handsomely for, most likely, the better part of the next decade.

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Yet López, always with one eye cast forward, has connected the game to what comes next.

He would like to go to college.

For López, that doesn’t mean logging on in his off hours, taking a few Zoom courses and seeing his diploma churned out by whatever mill might be taking his money.

No, he’s talking about the campus rigmarole, classes with kids nearly two decades his junior, library cram sessions, perhaps everything but dorm life – López will simply drive or bike from his home, he envisions.

He wants to study to become a nutritionist or dietitian, years of treating his body like a finely-tuned machine piquing his interest in the craft. He would also fulfill a dream deferred when his parents – both doctors – endorsed his decision to skip college in Venezuela and, high school degree already in hand, sign with the Seattle Mariners at 16.

Danny and Agnedis López were both doctors, Agnedis a pathologist who would take Pablo to work sometimes, even if that work involved performing an autopsy. But she passed away when he was 11.

López would accompany his father to work, too, occasionally spending the night at the hospital when Danny was on call, only to jerk awake when his dad was summoned to care for a patient.

A heart attack claimed Danny, 63, in 2020, one year after spending most of 2019 in Miami, watching his son’s first full season as a big leaguer for the Marlins. Their town of Ciudad Ojeda has not forgotten.

“He was very well-remembered back home,” says López of his father. “He helped a lot of people, did a lot of good things.

“It’s a good legacy to carry on.”

For now, López is carrying it with his right arm.

‘More like a ritual than a routine’

Few pitchers can match López’s reliability, and they love him for it in Minnesota. Acquired from Miami for past and future batting champion Luis Arráez in a deal that balanced two eventual playoff rosters, López struck out 234 batters in 194 innings last year.

He beat the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL wild card series. Beat the Houston Astros in the AL Division Series. And in agreeing to his $73.5 million deal 13 months ago, established himself as a franchise cornerstone.

“You really couldn’t ask for a better pitcher to have in your organization,” says Twins starter Joe Ryan, who’s posted a 3.15 ERA in 10 starts. “On the mound, it speaks for itself.

‘It’s fun to talk to him about scouting reports, what he thinks about attacking hitters, how he prepares, and all the things that go into a long season. It’s the routine – how routine-oriented he is. I think there’s so many pieces to that.”

Consistency, for one.

When López has a rough start – such as the eight-hit, seven-run damage the Nationals dropped on him Monday night – the doubts can ensue. The Twins have a statistic called “early and ahead,” in which either two of the first three pitches of a plate appearance are strikes, or it’s concluded within three pitches.

His metric was the best it’s ever been Monday – 23 of 24 early-and-aheads.

He lost 12-3.

“It just goes to show how fragile baseball can be,” muses López.

And so he returns to what he knows. A half-hour run of four miles, a leg workout, arm care. When he throws his between-starts side session, he will begin preparations 90 minutes in advance.

Come his next start, Sunday at Texas, López will arrive early, double- and triple-inspect his locker to ensure everything is in place, and position things where he may need them throughout the day.

“It feels more like a ritual than a routine,” he says. “It goes hand in hand with discipline, with knowing that this routine is what keeps me available, keeps me healthy, what keeps me sane. I don’t do it because I’m superstitious. I do it because it works.

“I try to separate motivation and discipline. Because motivation can let you down. Discipline you build through discomfort, you build through resilience, you build through resisting that temptation to change things up.”

‘Do I want to play to weakness or strength?’

It’s hard to dispute the results. López made his first All-Star team last season, the end of a three-year run in which he had a 1.15 WHIP, 3.57 ERA and 117 adjusted ERA. He’s tied for the AL lead with 25 quality starts since the start of 2023.

López has almost been too precise this year, reducing his walk rate to a career-best 4% – less than half the league average of 8.4%. While his WHIP has held steady at 1.12, he’s given up nine home runs, suggesting he’s prone to early-count ambushes.

The chess game will continue. Yet batters are also matching wits with a dude who speaks four languages – Italian and Portuguese in addition to English and Spanish – and eagerly ingests what the Twins provide him, even if he must process it within the pitch clock’s parameters.

“It’s a balance between information and trusting your instincts. That’s what got you here,” says López, whose four-seam fastball averages 94 mph. “Sometimes a batter’s weakness is my weakness. Do I want to play with weaknesses or strengths?

“When we get the ball back, those 15 seconds – it’s not a long time, because we race through so many thoughts, so many ideas, so many things. Sometimes, instead of just letting things happen, trusting our instincts, we get a little caught up on all the information being provided to us.”

Commitment to excellence

Still, it’s hard to think López is anything but built for this, with a 6-4, 225-pound frame supporting the mind of a would-be med student.

“Really intelligent,” says Nationals reliever Dylan Floro, Lopez’s teammate in Miami and Minnesota, “but the way he prepares for starts, he’s going to have a really good, long career.

“When he’s behind the scenes working, what he reads, what he processes, knowing pretty much everything about every hitter, it’s crazy to see it.”

It is unfortunate who isn’t around to witness it. López takes some solace in the fact his father got to meet his then-girlfriend, Kaylee, before he passed.

By 2021, López and Kaylee planned to marry. Like most ballplayer families, they eyed winter nuptials, but the logistics of getting López’s family from Venezuela to the Miami area, or Kaylee’s family elsewhere, proved too challenging.

Come March 2022, they decided a simple courthouse ceremony was the way to go. And so López had spring wedding on an April off day, a ballplayer rarity.

Three days later, he threw seven shutout innings for the Marlins.

Commitment. Focus. Outcome. Those facets live on in Danny and Agnedis’s 28-year-old son.

“They always told me, if you do something, try to do it at your very best,” he remembers. “Ask yourself if what you’re doing today will get you where you want to be tomorrow. They had a very big influence and not just because of what they tried to teach me, but how I saw them do things.

“You keep going.”

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