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The Nicky Lopez appreciation thread

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Has the infielder found his role?

MLB: JUN 18 Red Sox at Royals Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Earlier this season, former beat writer Jeffrey Flanagan, now unfettered from his beat responsibilities, let loose with some opinions on his time covering the Royals. In particular, he had thoughts on how the fanbase treated Nicky Lopez, going from excoriating the Royals for not calling him up despite some flaws to his game, to turning on Nicky when his bat became an obvious black hole in the lineup. Flanagan called on fans to “appreciate him” for being an “incredible defender.”

I don’t agree with all of Flanny’s takes on how Lopez was treated, but I think he is right that at least some fans were a bit too quick to turn on Lopez. It is a bit understandable when you look at his offensive numbers. In his first two seasons, Lopez failed to impress much with the bat, hitting just .228/.279/.307. There were 226 players from 2019-2020 with at least 500 plate appearances - Lopez had a wRC+ worse than all but nine of them.

But hitting is just part of the game! Flanny was right, Lopez was an “incredible” defender, finishing 2020 as a Gold Glove Finalist. And not in a 1980s-era “oh this guy stinks at hitting but is a starter, so he must be a great defender” way, the metrics actually backed it up. Among those 226 players I cited earlier, Lopez finished 32nd in Defensive Runs Above Average, according to Fangraphs.

Still, the bat seemed to be a liability. Lopez tried to muscle up last year in an effort to boost his anemic power numbers, but it was all in vain as he hit just one home run, and his .065 ISO was one of the lowest in baseball.

Orioles Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver once said “You must accept a player’s incapabilities. Use his strengths. And avoid exposing his weaknesses.” This year, it seems that Lopez has accepted his incapability - hitting for any kind of power. Instead, he has seemingly focused on what he excelled at in the minors - drawing walks and avoiding strikeouts.

Lopez has become one of the more patient hitters in baseball, swinging just over 41 percent of the time, the 15th-lowest rate in baseball. But when he does swing, he makes contact, with only five players in baseball posting a better contact rate. And only four hitters in baseball swing and miss less than Nicky.

Nicky Lopez plate discipline

Year Swing % Contact % Swinging Strike% Walk rate Strikeout rate
Year Swing % Contact % Swinging Strike% Walk rate Strikeout rate
2019 49.5% 87.1% 6.4% 4.5% 12.7%
2020 44.2% 80.7% 8.5% 9.4% 21.4%
2021 41.4% 88.5% 4.7% 11.7% 13.2%

The result has been a .350 on-base percentage, second on the team, and tenth among all middle infielders with at least 200 plate appearances. Combine that with his defense, and he is on pace for a 2.5 WAR season, more valuable than Trevor Story, Gleyber Torres, or Corey Seager, according to Baseball Reference. Why is he valuable?

Is his performance sustainable? He has been buoyed by an incredibly high BABIP in his last few games, and his overall .304 BABIP is higher than the league average of .290. He is still among the lowest-ranked hitters in the league in hard-hit rate, and his “Expected Batting Average” based on his batted ball data is just .230.

Still, if he can be this selective on pitches, and put strikes into play, his bat might be useful enough to be worth keeping in the lineup as a plus defender. There is nothing wrong with being a high-walk, zero-power infielder with good defense - players like Jamey Carroll, Eric Sogard, and Nick Punto all put together nice careers with that profile.

And Lopez’s breakthrough has come at the perfect time, when Adalberto Mondesi continues to suffer injury setbacks that keep him off the field. While some fans may want to trade Mondesi out of frustration, Lopez allows the Royals to be patient with him, with Lopez serving as a decent stop gap. Anything they get from Mondesi at this point should be considered icing on the cake.

If this improved approach at the plate is real, Lopez can be a valuable player for the Royals. He may be stretched as an everyday regular, but being a semi-regular who fills in the middle infield positions with terrific defense and an ability to draw walks can fill a much-needed role.

Appreciate Nicky Lopez for what he is, don’t knock him for what he isn’t, and never will be.