Stories like Luis Lopez’s are a big reason why baseball is great. A prep standout who attended a (at the time) mid major program and performed well enough to get a shot in professional baseball...sort of. As an undrafted free agent, where the odds are as long as A-ball bus rides, Lopez would grind away for seven seasons in the minors – putting together batting averages of .325, .285, .358, .305, .322, .328 and .324 before he got a well-deserved shot in the big leagues. The dude raked, and a big reason why? He didn’t strike out. In 4,369 professional plate appearances, LopezK’ed just 486 times. He maintained an 11% Krate in the minors and a 17% strikeout rate in the majors. For reference, MLB’s strikeout rate was 23.4% in 2020, and only one team (the Houston Astros) finished below 20%, at 19.7%.
Former teammate Billy Koch compared him to Edgar Martinez, who was one of the greatest contact hitters of all time.
With seemingly no end in sight to the rise in strikeouts at the game’s highest level, we thought there was no better time than now to catch up with Lopez, who is now coaching amateur baseball...
Inside Pitch: What was your recruiting process like and how exactly did you end up at Coastal Carolina from Brooklyn?
It is a crazy story! Recruiting back in the day was completely different, done mostly by word of mouth first, and coaches coming to see you second. I grew up in Brooklyn and had been in touch with some big schools, but nothing was concrete, so much so that I’d graduated in June and still didn’t have a school. Could you imagine that today?
I went to a tournament in North Carolina that summer. Coastal’s head coach at the time was John Vrooman, who happened to be sitting next to my dad one day. And I promise he had no idea! We were getting crushed, it was the second inning, middle of the summer, 10-0 already. There was a shot up the middle and I made a diving play to throw out a runner. Coach Vrooman said something to the effect of “Wow, I can’t believe they are getting crushed and that kid is still playing hard!”
My dad was clapping after that play, but nothing crazy because we were getting smoked. Coach Vrooman asked him if he knew that Brooklyn team, if he knew that shortstop, and why wasn’t he committed? I got invited to campus and was offered a scholarship shortly after that.
IP: You signed as an undrafted free agent out of independent ball and made it all the way to the big leagues – how?
I had a great college career at Coastal Carolina. I was inducted to the CCU Hall of Fame and the Big South Hall of Fame, but unfortunately I didn’t get drafted. So I started going to all the open tryouts I could find, for any MLB team that would show up. I felt like I always did pretty well, but no one signed me. I was still on campus at Coastal finishing my degree and working out, and Coach Gary Gilmore told me about another workout and I went, of course. Nick Belmonte ended up signing me out of that one, with the St. Paul Saints in independent ball. I was there a month before I got sent on loan to the Ogden Raptors. This was my opportunity because my team was independent but we were in the Pioneer League, and every other team was affiliated with an MLB organization. I went there and hit .357, and Toronto invited me to a work out the next season.
IP: Who were some teammates/coaches that really helped you the most as a player along the way?
Too many to name! I always wanted to be remembered as a great teammate before a great ball player, so I had many great teammates that helped me. As far as coaches, it goes back to Mel Zitter with Youth Service. My high school coach Bobby Nappo. Of course at Coastal, John Vrooman and Gary Gilmore. In pro ball, Rocket Wheeler, JJ Cannon, Jimmy Hoff, Pat Kelly, Dayton Moore, Ron Washington, George Bell, Larry Hisle, Thad Bosley, Omar Malavé, Roland Pino, I’m sorry if I left anyone out. So many coaches helped me a great deal throughout my career. That’s a big reason why I am coaching now.
IP: What made you decide to get into coaching at the high school level versus college or pro ball?
I really wanted to help the high school players because I didn’t see as much teaching on the fundamentals of the game. I also wanted to be closer to my family. I missed a lot when I was playing for 20 years professionally.
IP: High school baseball versus travel ball; can you sense the tension?
There’s definitely some tension there. I coach on both sides of that aspect, so I have to hear it and see it. Tobe honest, there are just too many egos involved. We all need to remember it’s not about us anymore, it’s about the players. All we do is teach and try to help create opportunities for them to get to the next level. It’s not about lying to players and parents and college coaches. I try to be as transparent as I can be, even if some conversations maybe tough.
IP: When did you realize you were an exceptional contact hitter? What skills were you born with when it comes to this? What skills did you have to develop? Any mechanical changes to the stance/swing with two strikes?
I realized at a young age, probably 8 or 9. In my Little League they had me playing with 11-12 year olds and I was excelling. My dad would train with me all the time. We practiced by hitting bottle caps and popcorn kernels with broom sticks. This really helped me with my hand-eye coordination, obviously! I also remember doing a ton of tracking drills, following the ball all the way into the mitt. This is a lost art nowadays, in my opinion.
I also learned how to situationally hit, where your approach is dictated by contact. In pro ball I was able to really refine my understanding of contact points, a plan, an approach. Without a doubt though, my dad and the coaches I had through childhood showed me the importance of cutting down my swing to put the ball in play because strikeouts don’t help your team. Learn how to pass the baton!
IP: So what’s your mental thought process with two strikes?
In my third year of pro ball I had two gentlemen that changed my thought process with everything and tweaked some mechanical things as well: Larry Hisle and George Bell. As soon as I was shown contact points with baseballs on the ground in a diagonal line on home plate, everything clicked. I was truly able to understand what "look away, react in" meant, particularly within game situations, hitter’s counts versus pitcher’s counts, et cetera. Larry and George were home run hitters when they played but they also hit for average, and those guys – who could hit it a mile – told me that the way you play “pepper” should be my two-strike swing, and to really look away with two strikes. That helps you pick up spin earlier so you can lay off balls in the dirt. It’s obviously not fool proof because hitting is hard! But I really bought in to that approach, I took pride in not striking out and finding a way to get on for my teammates, and it paid off in a big way.
IP: Are there any drills that you use to develop this ability with your players?
Hit bottle caps and popcorn kernels with a broomstick! Hit the little golf whiffle balls with a stick ball bat. Go stand in the bullpen and track pitches when pitchers are throwing. Incorporate a round of situational hitting every time you take BP.
Each player is different, so the sooner you figure out what type of hitter you are, the better. You have to play to your strengths. That’s what I think the problem is nowadays, everyone is being taught to hit the ball in the air and that strikeouts are OK. Not on my teams. You can be a power hitter and also hit for average. You can learn to pass the baton. You can’t hit every pitch out anyways!
Contact in amateur baseball should be goal number one! Amateurs need to learn how to hit first. Find consistent barrel contact. If you continuously hit the ball hard as you get stronger and gain more experience, those hard-hit balls become home runs.