Nicky Lopez and Sustainability
The Royals shortstop finally showed what everyone wanted in 2019, but can he keep it up?
If not for Adalberto Mondesi getting hurt, 2021 would have looked very different for Nicky Lopez. He was optioned to AAA in the last few days of spring after a terrible 2020 season turned into a lackluster spring training. He was set to begin the year at the alternate site (remember, minor league games didn’t start until May), but Mondesi’s initial oblique injury got him called back up before he could ever leave. And he started the year on a high note in the big leagues, hitting .304/.353/.391 through 16 games, 15 of which he started and hit ninth in.
But things went south.
He went 0 for 2 with a walk the next day. Then, and including that game, he was 3 for 39. He did walk 10 times, so there was at least that, but he was back to his 2020 self and people were clamoring for Mondesi’s return. Things weren’t that bad the whole rest of the time before Mondesi came back. He did hit .293/.333/.390 in 13 games before Mondesi made his debut in Tampa in late May.
As we’re all well aware, Mondesi played just a week before going down with another injury and Lopez was put back in the lineup. Then Mondesi came back, but he was out again just a few days later. And from the point that Mondesi went down in mid-June to the end of the year, Lopez turned his season from one that might put his career in jeopardy to one that has him in the conversation both to hit near the top of a hopefully better Royals lineup and to be the starting shortstop on a team that features both Mondesi and uber-prospect Bobby Witt Jr. That’s quite a feat.
That .321/.374/.404 line the remainder of the season pushed Mondesi to third when he returned in September and pushed Lopez to the top of the lineup to help Salvador Perez drive in a ton of runs down the stretch. And now, as I mentioned, the conversation about the Royals shortstop features his name at the top, which nobody would have predicted just a season ago. Also, I want to at least mention his defense before I get into if he can sustain his offensive production. He was about average in defensive runs saved, but Baseball Savant tracks outs above average and his 25 led all of baseball. Not all shortstops…everyone. He’s a fantastic defender and that’s part of why the recognition is there.
But let’s talk about the bat, which came alive in 2021. I wrote a few weeks ago that it wouldn’t surprise me if he regressed. I took some, but not much flack for that, specifically on Reddit. I explored it a bit on Royals Review as well, but I want to dig in deeper here. As I like to do, I haven’t done any of this research first. You’re figuring this out along with me to determine if what he did in 2021 is even a little sustainable. Let’s start with the expected stats.
First, the batting average:
Now, the slugging percentage:
You hate to see something like this when you’re analyzing a player because it immediately puts your brain in a place of pessimism. The 2021 expected stats are basically identical to the 2020 expected stats. At a glance, it means that Lopez was pretty unlucky in 2020 (look at those ugly averages against breaking balls and offspeed stuff) and very lucky in 2021. It means that the batted ball quality was pretty much the same.
But the batted ball shape might be different, so it’s not immediate doom and gloom here. First, there is where he hit the ball. In 2020 when he tried to bulk up for more power, he hit 32.8 percent of batted balls to the pull side. That dropped to 24.9 percent in 2021. The difference wasn’t all going the other way. He was about 2.6 percent higher going up the middle and 5.3 percent going the other way.
Normally pulling the ball is a recipe for hitting it harder, but with Lopez’s skillset, pulling the ball was a death trap for him because he hits the ball on the ground so often and not very hard. His average exit velocity on ground balls in 2021 was 81.2 MPH. Hit a soft grounder to the right side and you’re going to be out an awful lot. Hit that soft grounder to the left side and you’ll at least get some infield singles on it. And sure enough, his infield hit percentage jumped from 4.3 percent to 6.1 percent in 2021. I don’t think that’s long-term sustainable because his speed will dip at some point, but short-term, if he keeps the approach he used, that’ll help boost that BABIP some.
Oh and speaking of speed, he was better in 2021. Likely having lost some of the bulk he added before 2020 helped him here.
So he hit the ball on the ground more in 2021, but he went the other way more as well. He also hit fewer line drives, but a Lopez line drive isn’t quite as exciting as other players because he simply doesn’t hit the ball especially hard. It’s classified as a line drive because of the trajectory, no matter how slow it’s going. His average exit velocity on line drives was 92.2 MPH, which isn’t even considered hard hit. His hard hit rate on line drives was 46.4 percent, which is about 10 percent lower than his teammate, Salvador Perez, had on all batted balls.
If this seems like I’m bashing Lopez for not hitting the ball hard enough, I sort of am, but I’m also showing that without any pop, he actually benefits from serving the ball softly to left field. Look at these two spray charts. The one with more plots is 2021, but you can see that he seemed to be trying to use the whole field in 2020 and it just didn’t work.
Shortening his swing and selling out for contact was the right move for him. His in-zone contact rate in 2020 fell to 82.4 percent, which was good for 69th out of 142 hitters. A guy like Lopez can’t be middle of the pack. In 2021, it jumped to 89.2 percent, which was tied for 20th out of 132. He doesn’t have the power in his bat to overcome swinging and missing. He’s a volume hitter and needs to put the bat on the ball. And the result was that he hit .242 with a .328 slugging percentage on balls in the zone in 2020 and .324 with a .412 slugging percentage in 2021. The ISO was actually worse in 2021, but he was so much more effective within the zone. His whiff rate dropped from 16.5 percent on those pitches in 2020 to 9.7 percent in 2021. That’s huge.
Making more contact and not trying to yank everything leads to big changes in zone profiles like this one.
I mean, that’s everything. Lopez doesn’t have enough power to get pitchers to stop challenging him, but if he’s able to cover the zone, at least he has a fighter’s chance to get a hit. It’s interesting that the two spots he excelled in 2020 were his weak spots. So let’s take a look at some swing changes he made.
This first one is a 94.7 MPH fastball that’s sort of toward the middle but on the outer third of the plate still:
Now this one is a 94.5 MPH fastball that’s in a very similar spot:
If you asked me to blindly rate the swings, I’d say the 2020 swing was much better. It seems like there’s a more solid base and an ability to put something behind the swing. But the way he gets around that ball is something that, to this point in his career, just doesn’t work for Lopez. What I also find interesting is that it looks like he’s backed off the plate just a little bit from 2020. It’s not just in the gifs above, but in a handful of others I looked through. I wonder if that was with the idea of being able to take inside pitches the other way easier. If I ever get the chance to ask him about this, I will.
I noticed two big things rather easily. The first is that Lopez starts his stance in 2020 with his bat on his shoulder, then brings it up, then wiggles it and then takes a rounded swing. In 2021, his bat starts up. He still wiggles some, but the swing is direct to the ball with an intent to hit it the other way. It’s probably no coincidence that the 2021 ball was hit over 100 MPH while the 2020 one was a 91.7 MPH groundout to the right side. Again, if I was teaching, I’d like that first swing more probably. He’s using his legs and all that. But it just didn’t work for him.
It’s not just the swing that helped him, though. In 2020, he swung at 25.2 percent of pitches outside the zone. That’s good plate discipline. That dropped to 23.9 percent in 2021. It’s not a huge difference, but his whiff rate on pitches outside the zone was pretty consistent, which means that swinging at fewer decreases those whiffs and we’ve already talked about what a friend contact is to Lopez.
So let’s return to the question of if this is sustainable. Without a crystal ball, we can’t know for sure, but I would be skeptical of him putting up another .300 season without being able to hit the ball a little harder. It doesn’t mean he can’t, but he has to have some good fortune. Look at David Fletcher of the Angels. He’s a pretty similar offensive profile to Lopez. He hit .298/.356/.395 between 2019 and 2020 in 883 plate appearances. He walks a bit, doesn’t strike out and doesn’t hit the ball especially hard. In fact, he hits it even softer than Lopez. His BABIP dropped from .325 those two years to .287 in 2021. His line dropped to .262/.297/.324.
He’s a righty compared to Lopez as a lefty, so when he stopped pulling the ball, it actually caused him some problems because softly hit balls to the right side are outs while softly hit balls to the left side can become hits. So that was a change for him, though his infield hit percentage actually jumped in 2021. My point is that he’s a cautionary tale. When hitters rely on balls finding holes and being hit in spots that defenders can’t throw them out before they reach first base, their offense is dependent on too many things they simply can’t control and that can lead to bad results even with an identical process.
One thing that I sort of wonder and I think have mentioned before is if maybe Lopez went out of order in trying to take the next step offensively. He wasn’t good after being called up in 2019, but instead of trying to take steps incrementally, he went for the home run, so to speak. What he should have done was go back to the basics he did after his terrible 2020 to improve his basic hitting skills. It seems he’s done that and created an approach that works for him. Now it might be the right time to add some muscle and hope to grow into a little more power.
So I think there’s definitely some nuance in how to rate Lopez’s chances of repeating. He’s putting himself in the best possible position to succeed, which is what you want from a player and while I don’t think you can count on another 2021 season from him without continuing to change his profile some, it’s certainly possible that he can continue to be an offensive asset. And what’s nice about what he did in 2021 was he showed he can not only be a capable shortstop but a good one. So even in a year where he might drop to a .275/.330/.350 line, there’s room for that on the roster in some role.
The Royals are in a great position heading into 2022. They have three players who can play shortstop at a high level. One of them can’t seem to stay healthy. One of them has a pretty high offensive variance from year to year. And one of them has never seen the big leagues. If one doesn’t work, they can just move on to the next but have the luxury of finding a spot for all of them if they all can do what we know they’re capable of doing. Lopez’s 2021, while maybe not consistently sustainable, is huge for the team moving forward. And, like I said, if he can continue to grow, he has a chance to maintain that success.
Nicky's future at shortstop, for the Royals, has always seemed a short term deal to me. What a great year he had in 2021. He is a valuable piece, but long term the team has other infield options that offer greater production. Do we keep him as a super utility guy, give him second and move Merrifield out of his best defensive position? Do we trade him now when his trade value is high? I like Nicky a lot, but If including him in a trade that brought back a real talent in the outfield or a starter, I wouldn't blink an eye.
Great information as usual David. I too expect Lopez to come back to earth, so to speak in 2022. I think 2nd would be his ideal position. That would let Witt excel at short. But doing that creates the problem of where to play Merrifield. I would be interested in what you think would be the best solution to the Infield logjam. Merry Christmas to you and your family David.