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Can Nicky Lopez stick in the big leagues with a lack of power?

It would need to involve a big change

Kansas City Royals Nicky Lopez (1) comes up with a ground ball in the eighth inning of an MLB game between the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals on September 1, 2020 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO.
Kansas City Royals Nicky Lopez (1) comes up with a ground ball in the eighth inning of an MLB game between the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals on September 1, 2020 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO.
Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Nicky Lopez made his Major League debut last May, he was billed by Kansas City Royals fans, local media, and the Royals themselves as a legit prospect, the first among a wave that would bring the franchise back towards winning ways. With Adalberto Mondesi entrenched at shortstop and Whit Merrifield’s positional versatility, Lopez started at second base and has been, for the most part, an everyday player since.

In the minors, Lopez was well-renowned as one of the rare Royals prospects with advanced plate discipline. Indeed, Lopez was excellent at this. Over 1579 minor league plate appearances, Lopez drew 167 walks—good for a solid walk rate of 10.6%. That above average walk rate was also paired with a strikeout rate of 8.8%, a truly elite mark. Lopez was not a power hitter, but with a .296 minor league batting average and that walk rate he was an on base machine.

Unfortunately, Lopez has not exhibited that kind of success in the Major Leagues, where he has struggled despite regular playing time and ample opportunity to adjust and iron out the kinks in his game. Lopez hasn’t hit for average—he has a .234 big league batting average across 524 plate appearances. His strikeout rate has been low, at 14.7%, but notably higher than his minor league track record.

But most importantly, his career MLB walk rate of 5.5% is about half his minor league figure. Combined, Lopez has hit for 43% below league average per wRC+, leading to a career WAR of -0.3 per Fangraphs. Lopez has been a replacement-level player over what amounts to a full season, and he is no longer particularly young—he turns 26 next March.

Why hasn’t Lopez been able to translate is minor league success? In my opinion, there is a cascading effect going on, originating from Lopez’s inability to make consistent hard contact. Ultimately, the optimal hitting approach involves swinging at as few balls out the zone as possible and making the hardest contact possible at pitches that are swung at. The best hitters make the best contact, have the best command of the strike zone, or both.

We’ve already seen, in Adalberto Mondesi’s career numbers, what happens if a player has a poor command of the strike zone. But we can also see, via Lopez’s career numbers, what a lack of power does for a player’s offensive production. Among 196 players with at least 500 plate appearances since 2018, Lopez ranks 188th in average exit velocity at 85.1 MPH. And while you can probably chalk this up to a “well, duh” statement, it is true that players who hit the ball harder are more productive hitters. Take a look at these 196 hitters, sorted into groups based on exit velocity, and that group’s median wRC+.

wRC+ by Average Exit Velocity

EV Median wRC+
EV Median wRC+
92+ 127
91-91.9 117
90-90.9 115
89-89.9 112
88-88.9 102
87-87.9 100
Below 87 93

So, is there any hope for those players who don’t hit the ball hard? Let’s hone in a little more on that bottom group, the one Lopez is in. Eight of the 23 players whose average exit velocity is south of 87 MPH have been league average or better hitters by wRC+. Who are they, and how did they get there?

Low Exit Velocity Hitters, 2019-2020

Omar Narvaez Multiple 160 574 9.9% 21.3% 0.173 0.299 0.262 0.341 0.435 0.332 110 85 2.1
Chris Taylor Dodgers 162 553 9.9% 27.3% 0.181 0.348 0.262 0.340 0.443 0.332 108 86.2 2.3
Kolten Wong Cardinals 175 656 9.1% 14.9% 0.125 0.317 0.279 0.361 0.404 0.329 105 86.2 4.2
Dexter Fowler Cardinals 173 649 12.3% 25.0% 0.175 0.299 0.243 0.346 0.418 0.329 105 85.4 1.9
David Fletcher Angels 189 815 8.7% 9.9% 0.100 0.320 0.295 0.355 0.395 0.325 105 84.2 4.9
Eric Sogard Multiple 138 543 9.0% 14.4% 0.147 0.295 0.271 0.339 0.417 0.323 101 85.4 2.2
Kevin Newman Pirates 159 653 5.5% 11.8% 0.124 0.321 0.296 0.342 0.420 0.325 101 85.4 2.2
Hanser Alberto Orioles 173 702 3.0% 9.8% 0.118 0.327 0.309 0.333 0.427 0.323 100 84 2.9
AVERAGE N/A 166 643 8.4% 16.8% 0.143 0.316 0.277 0.345 0.420 0.327 104 85.2 2.8

I’ve also added in the average figures among those players, and you can see some trends: they tend to walk well, and they tend to hit for better averages. Surprisingly, strikeout rate isn’t necessarily a big deal, as three players with weak exit velocities have strikeout rates north of 20% and have been better than league average. Something else that they do accomplish, though, is good isolated power despite a low average exit velocity.

To answer the question in this article’s title: yes, Nicky Lopez can stick in the big leagues with a lack of power. Importantly, Lopez can stick in the big leagues without even being the low-strikeout guru he was in the minors.

But it won’t be easy. Recently, I’ve been thinking about pathways to success. In baseball, a position player contributes the most value through on base percentage, then through power, then through defense, then through baserunning. It is so not simply because on base percentage is the lifeblood of offense, but because being good at that is hard. You could teach any professional track runner to be a good baserunner. The minors are teeming with defensively talented players at every position. The minors are not teeming with guys with advanced pitch recognition and bat skills.

Lopez’s pathway to success in the big leagues is narrow. With so little power, he must either become the disciplined, contact-heavy hitter he was in the minors, or he must revamp his approach and swing to access what power he’s got like he never has shown to be able to as a professional baseball player. In other words, he must be a completely different player than he has been at the plate so far in his career. It’s a tall order. But with the Royals nowhere near contention, Lopez should have the opportunity to try.