Search

Beware The Bats Powered by Javy Lopez, who's having a record-setting season for a catcher, Atlanta is winning not with pitching but with hitting

Sept. 01, 2003
Sept. 01, 2003

Table of Contents
Sept. 1, 2003

NFL Preview 2003

Beware The Bats Powered by Javy Lopez, who's having a record-setting season for a catcher, Atlanta is winning not with pitching but with hitting

Javy Lopez is eager to set the record straight. A visitor to the
Atlanta Braves' clubhouse at Pac Bell Park has just recounted to
Lopez a story told by his teammate Andruw Jones about an
afternoon the two spent, two or three years ago, flying one of
Lopez's radio-controlled model airplanes. According to Jones, an
aerial maneuver went awry, and the plane entered a tailspin and
crashed into a wall of trees, forcing the pair to scour the woods
for the fallen aircraft. Lopez, an avid flyer, and a proud one,
shakes his head. "No, no. What happened was, the battery fell
out, and once it comes out, you've got no control over the
plane," he says. "So it started spinning and hit the ground, near
some trees. It's not like I crashed it in the woods."

This is an article from the Sept. 1, 2003 issue

This pilot knows the difference between a nasty fall and a true
crash and burn. After two seasons of decline, the 32-year-old
Lopez is savoring a career year and has become the unlikely
engine of Atlanta's big old jet airliner, the most powerful
offense in the National League. Through Sunday the Braves had
blitzed to the best record in baseball (84-46) and a 13 1/2-game
lead in the NL East. They've done it not, as has been their
signature since the early 1990s, with otherworldly starting
pitching (theirs has been average this year), but with their
bats. The sight of Atlanta's potent offense--tied for first in
the majors in home runs (197) and second in runs per game (5.7)
and slugging percentage (.479)--covering for a scuffling
starting staff produces a striking frisson of unfamiliarity.

With a 3-4-5 so formidable that Lopez hits seventh in the batting
order (outfielders Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones
have combined for 86 homers and a .935 OPS), the Braves have
reimagined themselves as bruisers. Atlanta has a shot at the NL
single-season team home run record (249, by the 2000 Houston
Astros). And with Lopez (34 homers at week's end), Sheffield
(33), Andruw Jones (31), Chipper Jones (22) and Vinny Castilla
(21), the Braves could finish with a major-league-record five
30-homer hitters.

At week's end Lopez had homered once every 11.71 plate
appearances, more frequently than any player besides the San
Francisco Giants' limitless Barry Bonds (11.67), and he was on
pace to tie the single-season record for home runs by a catcher
(41, by Todd Hundley), even though he had only 398 plate
appearances, five short of the minimum to qualify for the batting
title (chart, right). He also led major league catchers in
batting average (.326), slugging percentage (.668), extra-base
hits (54) and RBIs (85). "Javy's been absolutely awesome," says
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. "We knew he'd hit better than last
year, but nobody could envision this. It's gotten to the point
where he pops up and you almost get pissed off because you're
expecting another home run."

Lopez's resurgence not only follows the worst season of his
nine-year career (.233, 11 homers), but also arrives at an age
that typically transforms power-hitting catchers into 98-pound
weaklings. Because the physical demands of catching--the
accumulated fatigue on top of everyday bumps, bruises and busted
thumbs--are often responsible for that decline, his revival is
evidence that Lopez is in the best shape of his life. During an
off-season split between homes in Atlanta's Buckhead district and
his native Ponce, Puerto Rico, he dieted meticulously and added a
speed-training regimen to his workout program, dropping 35 pounds
from his 6'3" frame and reporting to spring training at 210, his
current playing weight. "I decided to do something different with
my life, my body," he says.

At 245 pounds Lopez had grown sluggish as each season wore on and
innings behind the plate mounted; his career batting average of
.255 in August was his worst in any month. A decade of lavish
postgame spreads had accustomed Lopez to heavy late-night meals,
so he began his new regimen by cutting back on carbohydrates in
the evenings and instead snacked on low-fat popcorn and, in
Jared-like fashion, turkey sandwiches from Subway. Working with
trainers in both Atlanta and Ponce, Lopez did cardiovascular work
three afternoons a week, short runs and sprints, high-jumped
through a maze of bungee cords and pulled tires, all with the aim
of shedding weight.

Still, Lopez did not immediately display his career-year form. He
struggled early, batting .227 with four homers over his first 24
games, and missed five days with a strained left hamstring in
late April. Always susceptible to becoming pull-conscious, Lopez
was jumping at pitches and letting his head and lead shoulder fly
open as he swung. "Even before the ball was to the catcher, my
shoulder was open," he says, "which made every pitch I saw almost
unhittable."

Even a splashy two-homer, six-RBI performance in front of his
father, Jacinto, and a partisan hometown crowd in a 14-8 win
against the Montreal Expos in San Juan on April 17 proved only a
momentary blip. While mulling over remedies in mid-May, Lopez
thought of Matt Williams, the former Giants, Cleveland Indians
and Arizona Diamondbacks slugger who retired in June. A
righthanded power hitter with a similar build, Williams had a
habit of touching the point of his chin to his left shoulder in
his stance; Lopez began doing the same thing. To encourage
patience at the plate, Lopez began positioning his hands back in
his stance, parallel to his right ear when he expected fastballs
and farther back, behind the ear, when he was sitting on breaking
balls. He immediately found himself with more time to be
selective. Says Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton, "The
biggest thing is, he started swinging at strikes. When he wasn't
hitting last year, he was chasing bad pitches."

Lopez also began reducing his live batting practice--initially to
conserve energy on sweltering Hotlanta afternoons--and soon found
that less BP meant better swings in games. "BP would screw up my
swing," he says. "There are a lot of people watching BP, and you
want to make things fun, right? Are you going to work on your
swing, hit balls the opposite way? No, you want to hit the ball
over the fence. Then you come into the game trying to jack the
ball out of the park on every swing." Now Lopez usually hits only
before the first game of each series and does soft-toss drills
indoors with third base coach Fredi Gonzalez on other days.

The result has been the most prolific power stretch by a catcher
in recent memory. Since his April 17 fireworks in San Juan, Lopez
had 33 home runs in 349 trips to the plate, one every 10.6 plate
appearances, including a major-league-high eight multihomer
games. "It's been bombs away, and I mean bombs away," says
Atlanta first baseman Robert Fick. "He's got what, 34? At least
30 of them have been no doubt, right off the bat. I've never seen
anything like it. You've got to compare it to a Bonds or Sosa or
McGwire." Although his aggregate numbers don't rival those three
(as a catcher, he misses substantially more games), Lopez's
success ratio does. In '01, when Bonds hit 73 homers, he went
deep once every 9.1 plate appearances; in '98, when McGwire hit
70, he did so once every 9.7 and Sosa (66 homers) once every
10.9.

Things are going so swimmingly that Lopez, not normally the
superstitious type, has, like Sheffield, taken to wearing the
same undershirt every day: Though Lopez claims the '70s and '80s
power-ballad band Boston as his favorite, he now sports a black
Aerosmith muscle shirt, a gift from a flight attendant on a team
charter earlier this season. When informed that the band once
co-owned a Boston nightclub, Mama Kin, in the shadow of the Green
Monster, Lopez muses for a moment. "Next year we play there. I
might check it out," he says, then reconsiders. "Next year, I
don't know if I'll still be with this team."

There's the rub: Lopez's well-timed season has likely priced him
out of Atlanta. After earning $6 million in the walk year of a
two-year, $13 million contract, Lopez is due a raise and a
multiyear deal. It's not likely he'll get that from the Braves,
who were forced to trade ace righthander Kevin Millwood for
budgetary reasons last December. And in 27-year-old Johnny
Estrada (.327, nine homers and 65 RBIs in 105 games with Triple A
Richmond), obtained from the Phillies for Millwood, Atlanta has a
future catcher at a cut-rate cost. "I got no clue," Lopez says of
next season. "The kind of year I'm having, the good thing is that
I know I'll find a job somewhere."

Lopez also wants to begin splitting time between catcher and
first base, a desire he'll make clear to interested clubs this
winter. "I want to start saving my body, where I can get a lot
more at bats and last longer," he says.

When retirement does beckon, Lopez will fill his days by flying
his model planes. "If he had his choice, he'd be playing with
airplanes every day," says Serge Lavigne, president of the Cobb
County Radio Control Modelers Club, of which Lopez is a member.
Growing up middle class in Ponce, Lopez enviously remembers
friends and neighbors flying model airplanes. "I used to love
watching them, but I never had the money to do it myself," he
says. "It's a pretty expensive hobby." Five years ago Lopez was a
budding aficionado, building and flying smaller planes. Now the
pride of his 12-plane collection is an Extra 260 with a 105-inch
wingspan, 102 cubic centimeter engine and 28-inch propeller. From
nose to tail it stands several feet taller than a man. "A beast,"
smiles Lopez. "I've only flown it once because you need a big
area, and it was only finished right before spring training."

During the off-season Lopez flies every other weekend, either in
Puerto Rico or at the CCRC's airstrip in Acworth, Ga. That
facility boasts a 400-foot paved runway that three years ago
Lopez paid $5,000 to help build. From April to October, Lopez
must content himself with puttering a small electric plane around
Turner Field or its parking lots, or practicing on a computer
flight simulator, but he craves the long, solitary hours of
flight. "I compare it to fishing," he says, adding that he'd like
to start entering flight competitions once he retires. "Once you
go out there and start fishing, it's like you're out of the
world, you're concentrating on something. It makes you find
peace."

The tranquillity will come. There are two months of turbulence
left for the Braves, and the man who's making them fly.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK COMING BACK After a two-year slump, Lopez is the unlikely leader of a lineup aimed at home run history.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATOCOLOR PHOTO: JEFF ZELEVANSKY/ICON SMI LESS IS MORE Dropping 35 pounds has helped Lopez ward off the wear and tear of life behind the plate.COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF SERGE LAVIGNE THE AIR UP THERE Lopez, has dreamed of flying model planes since he was a boy. "It makes you find peace," he says.

POWER PLAY

Javy Lopez is on pace for two records: the single-season home run
mark for catchers (he has hit all but one of his 34 homers while
playing behind the plate) and the record for home runs by a
player who fell short of qualifying for a batting title (the
minimum is 3.1 plate appearances per game--502 in a full season).
Lopez's .326 average at week's end would rank sixth in the NL,
but his 398 plate appearances fell five short of qualifying.

MOST HOME RUNS BY A CATCHER

PLAYER, TEAM SEASON HRs

Javy Lopez, Braves 2003 41*
Todd Hundley, Mets 1996 41
Mike Piazza, Mets 1999 40
Mike Piazza, Dodgers 1997 40
Roy Campanella, Dodgers 1953 40

MOST HOME RUNS BY NONQUALIFIERS FOR THE BATTING TITLE

PLAYER, TEAM SEASON PA HRs

Javy Lopez, Braves 2003 494* 42*
Hank Aaron, Braves 1973 465 40
Bob Horner, Braves 1980 495 35
Rudy York, Tigers 1937 417 35
Barry Bonds, Giants 1999 434 34

*Projected/Compiled by David Sabino and the Elias Sports Bureau

"At least 30 of [his homers] have been no doubt," Fick says of
Lopez. YOU'VE GOT TO COMPARE IT TO A BONDS, SOSA OR MCGWIRE."