Reynaldo López’s fast start prompts Braves to adjust; Bryce Elder shines in season debut

Reynaldo López’s fast start prompts Braves to adjust; Bryce Elder shines in season debut

ATLANTA — It’s not as if Atlanta Braves officials planned on giving Reynaldo López an extra two or three days of rest between every start. But they also didn’t plan on the converted reliever being the ace of their rotation in the early part of the season and going so deep in games right away.

López, whose 0.50 ERA is the lowest in the majors among pitchers who’ve made at least three starts, pitched on each of the first three Tuesdays of the season, with six days of rest between starts instead of the long-customary four. He’ll make his next start Wednesday in the series finale against the Miami Marlins on seven days of rest.

It’s an unusual schedule, to say the least. But López is in an unusual situation after serving as a full-time reliever for the Chicago White Sox in 2022-2023 and not pitching more than 66 innings in a season since 2019.

Braves manager Brian Snitker was asked Monday if the Braves had planned on giving López, 30, so much rest between starts.

“No, not really,” he said. “It just kind of happened. We didn’t know where he would be at this point. Honestly, we didn’t leave spring training thinking he was going to go six innings every time.”

So it works well on many levels when the Braves make a move like they did Monday, recalling Bryce Elder from Triple A and plugging him into the rotation for the series opener against the Marlins, allowing López and other starters to get additional rest.

Elder, a 2023 All-Star before fading badly in the second half, made the most of his first opportunity in the new season, allowing eight hits but no walks in 6 2/3 innings against the Marlins with four strikeouts in a 3-0 win. He left with a three-run lead on Travis d’Arnaud’s two-run homer and David Fletcher’s RBI single, both in the fourth inning. Elder presumably stays in the fifth starter role for now.

The homer was d’Arnaud’s fifth in his past three games, following his three-homer, six-RBI game Friday against the Texas Rangers that included a grand slam, and another homer against the Rangers on Saturday. He didn’t play Sunday.

The Braves thought López, last used as a starter in 2021, would need to build up incrementally to six innings during his first weeks as a member of their rotation. Instead, he was the first Braves starter to work six innings, which he’s done in each of his starts.

But it’s not the volume so much as the quality of work that’s been most impressive. In addition to that minuscule ERA, López has a 0.94 WHIP and .177 opponents’ average, leading Braves starters in each category and ranking second in strikeouts-to-walks ratio with 18:6, behind only Chris Sale’s 27:6.

“Being completely honest, I felt physically and mentally prepared for how this was going to go, but I didn’t expect to have the type of results that I’ve had,” López said through a translator after Tuesday’s win at Houston, where he pitched six scoreless innings of four-hit ball with a season-low one walk and season-high seven strikeouts. “I think I was expecting a little bit more of a progression as I continued to reaccustom myself to this role. But I’m not going to lie, I’m extremely happy with the results so far.”

López wants to get up to seven or eight innings soon. But even if he were to continue averaging six innings, he would be at 180 innings in the regular season after 30 starts. And as a full-time member of the rotation, he would make more than 30 starts if he were pitching on four or five days of rest.

So, the Braves know they either have to keep giving him additional rest, move him to the bullpen for a period – that’s not happening if he keeps pitching anywhere near this effectively as a starter – or risk him fading from pitching 100 or more innings over the 66 innings he had last season in 68 relief appearances.

For now, the extra-rest option works quite well, particularly since the Braves have a couple of other starters who also are logical candidates for extra rest — 40-year-old Charlie Morton and injury-plagued seven-time former All-Star Chris Sale, whose 102 2/3 innings last season were easily his most since 2019.

Elder pitched effectively and efficiently Monday, and shuffling the rotation allows Max Fried to start Tuesday on five days’ rest and Lopez on Wednesday on seven days’ rest. Sale and Morton will follow, each also on extra rest. The lefties, Fried and Sale, are split up now rather than pitching consecutively.

“We don’t do it without talking to them first,” Snitker said of giving starters extra rest or moving them around. “We don’t just come in and tell them that. They’re involved in the decisions. … So far, everybody’s bought in fairly well.”

Standard rest between starts is four days for a five-man major-league rotation, but the Braves are among teams that have gone to five days’ rest more than four in the past couple of years. They believe in creating extra rest by plugging in occasional spot-starters and not skipping any starter when the team has a scheduled day off.

But they’ve taken things to another level with López, mainly because he’s been so good as a starter that they now fully intend to keep him in the rotation.

López said the extra rest has been beneficial for him.

“Yeah, because he hasn’t had that kind of workload,” Snitker said. “And it’s different. I think that’s kind of why we looked to do this, just to get him built up a little bit.”

For now, all involved seem happy with the arrangement. López allowed one run in his Braves debut in cold, wet conditions at Chicago against his former White Sox team on April 2, and then worked six scoreless innings in each of his past two starts against the New York Mets on April 9 and against the Astros in Houston.

The sturdy right-hander has allowed four hits or fewer in each start. He threw 82, 94 and 94 pitches, and totaled six walks with 18 strikeouts in 18 innings.

In short, he’s been terrific.

And with Opening Day starter Spencer Strider out after season-ending elbow surgery, and Fried lugging a 7.71 ERA and 1.96 WHIP after four starts with only 16 1/3 innings pitched, it would be understandable if the Braves view López as even more important now than when they signed him to a three-year, $30 million free-agent contract in November.

Not that they would say that, or even hint at it if there was any concern about Fried getting things turned around soon.

Braves officials told López when they were pursuing him that he would get a chance to start, which helped him make a decision. Still, there was plenty of speculation outside the organization that the Braves would ultimately switch López and his 98-100 mph fastball back to a bullpen role.

There hasn’t been such speculation lately, because of the Braves’ rotation situation vis-à-vis Strider and Fried, and how utterly excellent López has been.

Instead of being a flamethrower averaging 98.2 mph with his four-seamer and 87.9 with his slider like he did last season when he relied almost exclusively on those pitches and an occasional changeup as a reliever, López has been changing speeds and mixing his pitches more as a starter.

He’s averaging a still-impressive 95.2 mph with his fastball and 84.0 mph with the slider, but also throwing an effective curveball with 76.8 average velocity, a pitch he’s thrown 10 times per start this season after rarely throwing it as a reliever.

“He’s a pitcher, he’s not a thrower,” said Braves catcher Chadwick Tromp, who was behind the plate for the first and third López starts. “He’s very smart. He studies. He has a good pregame routine. He’s committed to his pitches. He’s committed to his mind. And when he’s out there, he believes in himself. I think that confidence shows every time he gets on the mound.”

As for the extra workload of starting, Tromp smiled and said, “Have you seen that guy, how he’s built? He’s built like a stallion. I don’t think he feels it. I’m gonna be very honest with you, I don’t think he even feels it. I think he’s just throwing, like, effortlessly. That’s what it feels like to us. And we talk about it, too. For him to keep that velo up for six innings, that’s tough to do, man. Especially against (Houston’s) lineup, that can be taxing on some pitchers.

“He’s just calm, composed and collected the whole game.”

(Photo of Reynaldo López: Troy Taormina / USA Today)

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