By: Danny Will
In the game of baseball, being able to make adjustments can go a long way towards being successful and prolonging a career. Tennessee Smokies catcher Rafael Lopez is already aware of that at the young age of 25.
A shortstop during his high school days in south Florida, Lopez signed a letter of intent to play collegiately at Boston College. Things didn’t go as planned though for the Wellington, Fla. native and after being redshirted his freshman year, Lopez moved closer to home and played a year at Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce, FL, where he hit .375 in 47 games.
The impressive stint convinced Lopez to give it another go in the ACC. Except this time, he decided to stay in the Sunshine State as a walk-on at Florida State.
Gearing up for his sophomore season in the spring of 2009, Lopez received a shock that would change his baseball career forever.
“I was pulled out of class one day of all things and was told to come to the batting cage,” Lopez said. “They threw me a catcher’s mitt and said pop back there. I did a couple drills and they threw my infielder’s glove into the trash and said ‘this is how you’re going to make your money’. It was either play or don’t play so I decided to give being a catcher a go.”
Lopez did more than just give it a go for the Seminoles. He started 47 games behind the plate in 2009 and not only finished with a .989 fielding percentage, but Lopez threw out 42.2 percent of would-be base stealers.
The main man responsible for replacing Lopez’s infield glove with a catcher’s glove was FSU Assistant Coach Mike Martin Jr. Recognizing the tools that Lopez had in his arsenal, Martin Jr. believed he’d fit the mold as a catcher.
“Lopez has a catcher’s body. Similar to Carlos Ruiz on the Philadelphia Phillies,” says Martin Jr. “We knew he had a rocket for an arm so we figured we’d give it a shot.”
Lopez wasn’t the first player that Martin Jr. transitioned into a backstop. Before the 2007 season, Martin Jr. was one of the people responsible for switching then Freshman All-American shortstop Buster Posey into a catcher.
After working nearly every day with Martin Jr. for six months, Lopez enjoyed a very strong junior season. He hit .278 with 24 RBIs and committed only six errors in 394 chances in 46 starts. Despite being named to the Johnny Bench Award Watch List for best NCAA Division I catcher, Lopez still didn’t feel entirely comfortable behind the dish.
“The first two years I was always nervous every pitch,” said Lopez. “I didn’t want to mess up and finally my senior year, I became really comfortable back there. I felt that’s when I could really take it to the next level.”
Lopez took his game to the next level as he hit .325 in his senior campaign with seven home runs and 36 RBIs as the ‘Noles made a trip to the 2011 College World Series. That success made a strong impression on the Chicago Cubs who took him in the 16th round of the 2011 MLB Draft.
Even though Lopez had the basics down in terms of catching, pro ball brought forth a different animal and another chance for him to improve and adapt.
“Even in my first summer of pro ball I still had a lot of adjustments to make because of the velocity change,” said Lopez. “Everyone was throwing harder with more movement. So from that standpoint I still wasn’t 100% comfortable but definitely this past season and this season, I really feel like I belong.”
In under two full years of minor league baseball, Lopez has risen from short-season Boise all the way to Double-A Tennessee. After struggling the first month of the season, Lopez was one of the Smokies best players in the month of May hitting .294 with three home runs and a .377 on-base percentage. From a catching standpoint, Lopez has been happy with the way his chemistry has progressed with the pitching staff.
“I’m a lot more comfortable now,” said Lopez. “I’m really starting to get to know these guys. Calling the game has become a lot easier because you know what they want to throw and when they want to throw it. Every pitcher has his own style and pace so getting used to that has really helped out.”
With his ability to make adjustments and willingness to learn, Lopez is off to a bright start in his minor league career. If he continues to adapt to the challenges in front of him, the final stop in his baseball journey could be alongside his predecessor behind the plate at FSU, Buster Posey, in the major leagues.