Nicky Lopez was a player many Royals fans were talking about going into this season. MLB Pipeline had him as the Royals #8 prospect, John Sickles had him at #7. At Age 24, he hit .333 in Spring Training, and easily made the case that he should break camp with the Royals. He did not break camp with the Royals, however. Nicky Lopez was sent back down to AAA so the Royals could carry utility man Chris Owings.
This actually made sense. Owings was a solid defender at multiple positions who as recently as 2017 slashed a, while not respectable, still serviceable .268/.299/.442. We all know how that turned out, however. Owings was... bad. I won’t go into too many details, but over 145 excruciating plate appearances, Owings slashed an unthinkable 133/.193/.222.
Back down in AAA, Lopez was mashing to the tune of .353/.457/.500. It was obviously time to make a change. And then a week went by, and it was still time to make a change. Eventually, though, the change was made. And Lopez was called up.
But the Nicky Lopez we saw in the minors is not who we’ve gotten. He’s struck out over 18% of the time, whereas he never posted a K rate above 11.5% in the minors. His average is down, his walks are down.
And this is all fine. So far, through 123 plate appearances, Lopez is slashing .205/.244/.291. This is good for a 39 wRC+, a stat where average is 100. He’s been a bad hitter since being called up. And I cannot emphasize this enough.
THIS. IS. FINE.
The adjustment from MiL pitching to ML pitching is massive. Even some of the best hitters struggle at first. Don’t believe me? Just look at the player standing next to Lopez on the diamond - Adalberto Mondesi. The top prospect was called up in 2016 and played in 47 games down the stretch. But he was initially overwhelmed, hitting .185/.231/.281 in his first 149 plate appearances. It wouldn’t be until he came back up in 2018 that he figured out big league pitching.
Or you could look at a former Royal, Ben Zobrist. Zobrist wasn’t a top prospect, but was a high-walk, low-strikeout hitter in the minors, much like Lopez. But he struggled initially, hitting .224/.260/.311 in his first 198 plate appearances, numbers pretty similar to Lopez so far.
Steamer projects Lopez to end the season with a line of .268/.329/.373, good for an 89 wRC+. That would be a pretty big success for a rookie season from a player who has never hit for power and never flashed elite bat-to-ball skills.
Lopez may never be an above-average hitter, but position players who play up-the-middle (catcher, second base, shortstop, center field) can get by being below-average hitters if their defense is good enough. He may never appear in an All-Star game, but average players (2 WAR) are super valuable in baseball in pre-arbitration and even through arbitration. Considering Royals production at second basein recent years - they are averaging 0.7 fWAR at the position from 2009 to 2016 - having even average production out of a second baseman will go a long ways towards solidifying their roster moving forward. Give him some time to adjust, and I suspect we’ll see the Lopez he was supposed to be.