When Nicky Lopez debuted for the Kansas City Royals on May 14, there was much rejoicing. At the time, Lopez was hitting a ridiculous .353/.457/.500 in Triple-A. Most impressively, Lopez was walking 14.5% of the time—and striking out only 3.6% of the time. It’s generally an impressive feat for hitters at any level to walk more than they strike out at all, and Lopez was walking four times as much as he was striking out. And Chris Owings, the guy Lopez would be more or less replacing, was hitting a paltry .143/.209/.244.
For a few weeks, Lopez was more or less as advertised. Through May 26, Lopez hit .261/.346/.326. While the power wasn’t there, he was very similar to the Lopez that played for the Omaha Storm Chasers, with a double-digit walk rate (11.5%) and a strikeout rate much better than league average (15.4%).
Since then, however, Lopez has been a miserable hitter. After Lopez walked on May 26, it took him almost a month—to June 21—for him to walk again, and since May 26 Lopez’s walk rate is a Salvador Perez-ian 2.4%.
Needless to say, this is not good. Lopez’s Statcast marks are pretty gruesome:
Lopez is in the top 14% of all runners in sprint speed, but that is the only positive skill compared to his peers. Lopez is in the bottom 3% of all hitters in exit velocity, hard hit%, xwOBA (expected wOBA, which takes into account launch angle and exit velocity, among other things), and xSLG (expected slugging, which is determined similarly to xwOBA).
This, combined with his sudden allergy to taking a walk, has combined to make Lopez the worst hitter in all of baseball by wRC+ among all hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. At 57% below league average, Lopez’s offensive production is worse than any individual season of Billy Hamilton or Alcides Escobar. In fact, it is historically bad—among all 7563 hitter seasons since the 1994 strike that accumulated at least 250 plate appearances, Lopez’s wRC+ of 43 ranks 50th worst, placing him in the 0.7th percentile.
There’s a lot to digest here, and they’re all related. But the main issue with Lopez isn’t a lack of plate discipline, nor necessarily a lack of power, nor a lack of offensive skill. Rather, Lopez’s main problem is that he makes way too much contact to succeed.
Considering Lopez’s low walk rate and low power, one might hypothesize that big league pitchers know that Lopez is unlikely to beat them and therefore filling the zone with strikes. One could also hypothesize that, as a result, Lopez would press and therefore expand his zone.
To see if these hypotheses are true, we need to turn to Fangraphs’ plate discipline statistics to explain why. The three most cogent stats portending to those two hypotheses are Zone%, Swinging Strike%, and O-Swing%. Zone% simply tells the percentage of pitches a hitter receives that are strikes. Swinging Strike% is exactly what you think: it’s the hitter’s percentage of swings and misses. O-Swing% is the rate at which a hitter swings at pitches outside the zone. And O-Contact% is the rate at which a hitter makes contact at a pitch outside the strike zone.
There are 239 hitters in 2019 who have accumulated at least 250 plate appearances. Here are Lopez’s marks and his rank compared to those players:
- Zone%: 47.1%, 3rd
- O-Swing%: 33.1%, 96th
In other words, Lopez is thrown a strike more often than all but a few players. With Lopez’s low power and exit velocity, that tracks. Meanwhile, Lopez swings at pitches outside the zone at a pretty high rate—about a third of the time, which is a safely above average rate compared to other hitters.
But that’s not necessarily a problem. What is a problem is that Lopez just makes too much contact:
- O-Contact%: 77.6%, 17th
- Swinging Strike%: 7.9%, 196th
There’s an old-school idea that swinging and missing is bad, that making contact is good, and that you should put the ball in play if at all possible. Rex Hudler has said as such on Royals broadcasts for years. However, that idea is simply untrue. Contact itself is neither good nor bad. Rather, it is the quality of contact that is good or bad.
When Statcast exit velocities became available for the first time in 2015, Daren Willman, Director of Research & Development for MLB, tweeted the data and it was as you might expect:
Several people asking about this stat and exit velocity... Here's the league breakdown. https://t.co/JPBMH1V1vZ pic.twitter.com/NRwa3UAQfz— Daren Willman (@darenw) October 24, 2015
From the data that year, the batting average of balls launched with an exit velocity between 80-89 MPH was .224. The batting average of balls launched with an exit velocity between 90-99 MPH was .342. And the batting average of balls launched with an exit velocity of over 100MPH was .611.
Lopez’s average exit velocity is 83.6 MPH, in the range where batting averages hover around .219. Sure enough. Lopez’s 2019 batting average is .222. And he gets there because he just makes contact with everything. One example of this came on June 21 against the Minnesota Twins. In the bottom of the ninth, with Whit Merrifield on first base, Taylor Rodgers throws a slider way outside. Rather than not swinging or fouling it off, Lopez makes contact. It comes off the bat at barely 65 MPH, and sure enough it turns into a double play to end the game.
Lopez is highly unusual in this specific cocktail of aggression and contact. Only three other batters—Jean Segura, Daniel Murphy, and Yuli Gurriel—swing at outside pitches as much as Lopez, make contact with those outside pitches as much as Lopez, and and swing and miss as little as Lopez. Segura and Murphy are league average hitters. Gurriel is a really good hitter. But, of course, all three have much more power than Lopez.
In other words, Nicky Lopez has exceptional bat-to-ball skills, but those skills are actively hurting him. He’s making too much weak contact outside the zone where other hitters often swing and miss, and it is contributing to too many easy outs.
Ultimately, something has to give for Lopez. Lopez either needs to look to the example of his teammate Whit Merrifield—who gained 20 pounds of muscle before the 2016 season through an intensive exercise regimen and a diet that involved seven meals a day—or radically improve his proclivity to swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. Preferably both. Otherwise, Lopez’s long-term career prospects are grim. No matter how slick of a defender you are, you must meet a certain offensive floor to be useful. Lopez isn’t anywhere near it.