On this week’s Hok Talk we discuss Nicky Lopez’s amazing individual achievements and how they highlight the team’s biggest flaws going forward. All stats are as of Friday afternoon, 9/17/2021.
Nicky Lopez is a bona fide top-tier major league shortstop.
That’s it. That’s the end of the sentence. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. As shocking as that revelation would be if we traveled back in time to tell anyone before the 2021 season started, that’s all you need to know about Nicky Lopez as the 2021 regular season winds down to a close and we all begin thinking about what will come in 2022.
But just in case you want numbers to back it up... According to FanGraphs’ fWAR stat, Nicky is tied as the seventh-most valuable shortstop in the big leagues - he leaped over Toronto’s Bo Bichette between when I started this and finished it. Because fWAR is a counting stat and Lopez has batted ninth most of the year, causing him to accrue far fewer plate appearances than many of the players in whose company he resides, it wouldn’t be unrealistic to suggest he’s actually been as valuable as a top-five shortstop that the Royals have misused. He has, over the course of a single year, gone from a guy who could not break camp with a team that may lose 90 games to one who will now be expected to be a significant contributor for years to come.
According to FanGraphs’ aggregate Defense stat, Lopez is the best defender at shortstop in the entire sport just edging out Colorado’s Trevor Story. Also according to FanGraphs, he has been the second-best baserunner at the position behind only the young phenom in San Diego, Fernando Tatis Jr. In a year with many frustrating developments, Nicky Lopez might be the best story to come out of Kansas City. It is almost impossible to heap too much praise upon him or the coaches who worked with him to help him make the adjustments that have led to this breakout season.
He could legitimately win a Gold Glove this off-season. If you told me you came from the future and could state for a fact that Lopez would participate in multiple All-Star Games in the near future I would believe you. If you told me the Royals could lock in Nicky Lopez with a 10-year deal paying fair market value based on his performance this season, that Nicky would never better than this, but that for at least the next five years he wouldn’t be any worse, either, I would wonder why the team hadn’t already done the deal.
Nicky Lopez is an effective but not particularly good hitter
I talked a lot about Nicky’s overall value, his defensive stats, and his baserunning stats for one very good reason; his hitting stats are not impressive. He might be top-five in value among shortstops but he is only the sixteenth-best hitting shortstop with more than 200 plate appearances by wRC+ at 108. That means he’s eight percent better than a league average hitter. Being better than average is good, but having your second-best hitter be only that high is a massive black mark on the roster.
Looking around the league at some competitive teams provides some eye-opening perspective. The Rays’ second-best hitter has a 124 wRC+. The Red Sox’s second-best is at 132 wRC+. The Dodgers’ second-best hitter has a 142 wRC+. Even the Yankees, who were only recently evicted from their presumed playoff spot have a second-best hitter sitting at 133 wRC+. The Blue Jays, who just unseated them, show a player with a 137 wRC+ as their second-best hitter. The Cardinals, who are just barely sneaking back into playoff contention down the stretch, feature a second-best hitter with a 131 wRC+. Even Pittsburgh and Baltimore feature better second-best hitters than the Royals.
This is not an indictment upon Nicky Lopez. Everything I said about him in the first half of this piece is still true. His story is an unequivocal success story. He doesn’t need to change anything because overall he’s terrific even if his hitting can’t carry the team. This is an indictment on the Royals’ lineup construction and performance. The story of the team is that of failure to develop or otherwise provide the players around Nicky to allow the team to allow his production to be sufficient. New GM J.J. Piccolo and the rest of the Royals’ front office staff will be charged with making the right moves this off-season to ensure that even if Nicky Lopez is exactly the same player next year that he still becomes only the teams fourth-, fifth-, or maybe even sixth-best hitter.