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Let’s talk about baserunning and Nicky Lopez

He was oh-for in the stolen base category this year.

MLB: AUG 08 Twins at Royals Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Nicky Lopez didn’t swipe a single bag in 2020. In five attempts! For someone with his profile, that lack of success seems a bit weird.

It gets even weirder! As Fangraphs pointed out, Lopez was the first baserunner to go oh-for-at least five stolen base attempts since Nick Hundley went 0-5 a decade earlier. That’s catcher Nick Hundley with his 15 total steals over an 11 year major league career, thank you very much. If you project yourself to have any kind of possibility of committing larceny on the bases, you don’t want to be keeping company with the Nick Hundley’s of the world.

The point of the Fangraphs article was that it had been a long time since someone had been so aggressive, yet so inept (their word!) at stealing bases. That conclusion doesn’t feel exactly fair as this was an abbreviated season of COVID-ball; a 60 game sample. Had they played a full season surely Lopez would’ve been successful at least once. Right? Right?!?!

Yet it is strange that someone with Lopez’s speed should come up short in five consecutive stolen base attempts. You would expect the elements to break in his favor at least once (probably more than once given that speed). A great jump. A bad pitch for the catcher to handle. A pitcher with a lengthy delivery. A bad throw down to second. All of these happened at least once. But even when he caught a break, Lopez was still gunned down. Watch the gifs from the article linked above. Sometimes those caught stealings were bad luck on Lopez’s part; others just plain embarrassing.

So is Lopez bad at stealing bases? Or is he just bad at baserunning overall? Or is it just a small sample blip?

Let’s begin with the obvious: Those caught stealings didn’t help Lopez when it came to base running runs above average (BsR). He finished the season at a -2.0 BsR. That’s... really poor.

Here are the Royals who had more than 100 plate appearances in 2020, ranked by BsR:

Royals 2020 BsR

Player BsR
Player BsR
Adalberto Mondesi 3.6
Hunter Dozier 1.5
Alex Gordon 1.0
Jorge Soler 0.9
Whit Merrifield 0.0
Salvador Perez -0.2
Ryan O’Hearn -0.6
Maikel Franco -0.7
Nicky Lopez -2.0

There is no way to spin this into a positive... this is an unkind table to Lopez. Look, we understand Makiel Franco having a negative value when it comes to BsR. We expect Salvador Perez to be in the red. But Lopez? Trailing the second-worst baserunner on the club by more than a full run? Egad. And it was the second time Lopez finished in negative territory—he posted a -0.6 in his debut season.

Lopez has a Sprint Speed that averages 27.7 ft/sec., according to Baseball Savant. That’s slightly above the average on a “competitive” play according to the definition. Elite sprint speed is 30 ft/sec. Adalberto Mondesi, who tops the table above, approaches that level.

Still, that doesn’t mean Lopez is slow or that he projects as an average baserunner. His Sprint Speed is in the 72nd percentile, which is still very good. But speed doesn’t necessarily translate into quality baserunning.

That speed does come in handy, though. According to Baseball-Reference, in 2020 Lopez took the extra base 70 percent of the time. That’s not necessarily an elite rate, but it is certainly above average.

Baserunning & Misc. Stats *
Year Tm XBT% 1stS 1stS2 1stS3 1stD 1stD3 1stDH 2ndS 2ndS3 2ndSH
2019 KCR 43% 22 15 7 5 2 3 8 3 5
2020 KCR 70% 11 5 6 5 1 4 4 0 4
2 Yr 2 Yr 53% 33 20 13 10 3 7 12 3 9
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 11/16/2020.

From the table above you can see that Lopez went first to third on a single a little over half the time in 2020. He scored from first on a double four out of five times. And the four times he was on second when a batter hit a single, he touched the plate in all four instances. That’s... really good. Let’s mark it down as a net positive.

Lopez was out twice on the bases (other than the caught stealings) in 2020, both times was when he tried to stretch a single into a double. Let’s go to the videotape. (Or the gifs. Whatever.) If you watched the gifs of the caught stealings from the Fangraphs article, these will look familiar.

August 15 at Minnesota

I’m going to link to the Baseball Savant video of the above gif because it’s worth clicking and listening to with the sound on. It may be the most solid-sounding contact Lopez made all season. But you can tell from the video it wasn’t all that hard-hit. Indeed, it left the bat at around 97 mph. The placement of the hit is obviously more important here as it split the outfielders. When you watched this live, you probably though he had a better than 50-50 chance of reaching second. And then Byron Buxton cut off the ball, spun and unleashed a throw to the outfield side of the bag that still nailed Lopez.

Even thinking double out of the box, it’s probably a questionable call to run in that situation because Buxton has a great arm. In that instance, you’re hoping for a wayward throw following that spin. Lopez got that—somewhat—and was still out with room to spare. From the video feed it looks like Lopez has just rounded first when Buxton reaches the ball. (Buxton is fast, too, which certainly plays a part here.) Maybe Lopez should’ve slammed on the brakes.

It was aggressive on the part of Lopez, which given the scenario is fine.

September 9 at Cleveland

This looks like a few of those caught stealings where Lopez doesn’t help his case with a poor slide. Besides, it was a questionable call on his part to run in that situation. Baseball orthodoxy says you don’t make the first or third out of an inning at third base. It doesn’t say anything about making an out on the bases after advancing a runner to third after a hit, but really it’s the same thing. Tie game, middle innings, the runner makes it to third… Lopez would’ve been best served holding at first.

But that slide… woof. Again, with the throw on the wrong side of the bag, you’d think a half-decent slide and Lopez would be in ahead of the tag.

We understand that Lopez doesn’t bring a ton of value to the plate. He’s supposed to be a grinder who puts the ball in play with enough discipline to keep the strikeouts down while taking a walk. At least that was his profile in the minors, but he hasn’t done that yet in his brief time in the majors. And with poor baserunning, he’s not helping his value in the slightest. With his current offensive profile, he simply can’t afford to give away outs on the bases.

It’s frustrating because we can see from the data from Baseball-Reference that he can be a good baserunner. Above-average, even. He can take the extra base. He can score from second on a single and from first on a double. He can, probably, steal a base. But it’s the over-aggressiveness, the poor decision making and the fundamentals that have let him down.

Yes, things are grim on the bases for Lopez. At this moment. The lack of success when attempting steals and his negative BsR is damning. But it doesn’t have to be this way; we can see the potential. When a player possesses the speed tool like Lopez, with a little bit of work and awareness on the bases, he can turn this negative into a positive. It’s necessary for him, even, to improve here. It’s certainly a facet of his game worth watching going forward.