One of the most improved players in the MLB last season came from the Kansas City Royals. Nicky Lopez went from a player who couldn’t make the opening day roster without an injury, to one of the best contact-hitting and fielding shortstops in all of baseball.
In 2021, Nicky slashed .300/.365/.378 with a .744 OPS while stealing 22 bases and playing elite defense at one of the sport’s hardest positions. The fault of Nicky’s game, however (especially in this time of analytics) is that he is easily one of the worst power hitters in the league. While he did have 29 extra-base hits in his 565 plate appearances, only two of them were home runs.
For him to be seen as an even ‘average’ player to many of the modern-day standards of OPS, OPS+, and WRC+, Nicky needs to hit around .285+ every season to make up for his lack of power. I value Nicky very highly, as he can run, field, and hit for contact all at elite levels and only strikes out at a 13.1% rate, but he will always be undervalued by analytics. Even in Nicky’s spectacular 2021, his OPS+ was only 102 and his WRC+ was only 106, which both point to him being an average hitter. This, along with Nicky being left out of even the Gold Glove finalists list (while he led in most major fielding categories), shows how underrated his overall game continues to be.
My main argument against some of these advanced stats is that they are ‘one size fits all’ stats that aren’t directly fair to all types of players. To prove this point, first, think of a hitter who hit 40 doubles and stole 0 bases, and now think of a hitter like Nicky who hit 21 doubles but stole 22 bases. Most of those steals move him to second base after a single, which leads to the same result as a leadoff double. The problem is, on stats such as OPS, OPS+, and WRC+, this same result is rated differently, one as a single, one as a double. While these stats are great for analyzing and comparing most baseball players, for certain hitters like Nicky, who are high contact and speed but low power, the context surrounding the advanced and combined stats is necessary when truly evaluating these players.
In the second half of 2021, Nicky Lopez was on an absolute tear. He slashed .330/.379/.423 with a .803 OPS in the 70 games following the all-star break. In the second half as well, 14 of his 22 stolen bases and 18 of his 29 extra-base hits were recorded. This placed Nicky first amongst all American League hitters in batting average and fifth in stolen bases through the second half. If Nicky can be even 75% of the player he was post all-star game in 2021, he will continue to be an excellent and unexpected piece for this team.
While some analytic fiends may be quick to point out that his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) was much higher than previous years (.273 in 2019, .260 in 2020, and .347 in 2021), this again is one of those analytical stats that must be read with context. Usually, when there is an abrupt, large increase in BABIP over a span of time it means that the player gets lucky more often than expected and that his hitting stats could regress going forward. However, the reason this may not be as much of a concern for Nicky is that compared to last season, he pulled the ball 7.1% less, hit balls to the center of the field 2.3% more, and hit balls to the opposite field 4.9% more. In simpler terms, he is spreading the ball to all sides of the field much more than in the past, which generally points to improvements made by a hitter.
So, what would make a successful follow-up season for Nicky in 2022? If Nicky hits .280/.340/.360 with a .700 OPS next year, adds 30 stolen bases, and wins a Gold Glove at either second or short, would that still be good enough? What about .270/.330/.350 with a .680 OPS, 15 steals, and his defense is still great, but a slight drop off from 2021? I think either of those scenarios would still be more than adequate on the Royals next year. However, I am still expecting Nicky to keep it going next season, everything from his second-half points to great contact, more steals, great defense, and even more power in the future. I am hoping for the best for Nicky going forward and believe that he can still improve.
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