300 years from now, when historians look back at the now-defunct Major League Baseball, they will surely look for outliers in the data. The aliens and their hyper-advanced computers will make the analytics keeping Joe Buck and Troy Aikman up at night look like Mad Dog Russo’s analytics.
They will spend hours crunching numbers, continuing the work of Dorktown, looking for the oddities of American professional sports. And after all the dust settles and we see the faces of Jeremy Lin and Peyton Hillis, surely Nicky Lopez’s 2021 season will emerge.
In his first two seasons as a Royal, Lopez was one of the worst players in baseball. His -0.3 fWAR ranked 218 out of 226 players with at least 500 plate appearances. He was a good enough defender but an absolute black hole at the plate. Royals fans wanted him out. He didn’t make the big league roster. And then an Adalberto Mondesi injury propelled him back into the lineup.
All he did next was have one of the 15 best seasons in Royals history, the 13th best to be exact, and became one of just 12 players in Kansas City franchise history to have a 5.0 or better fWAR season. The other guys on that list include George Brett (8), John Mayberry (2), Amos Otis (2), Willie Wilson (3), Carlos Beltran (3), Alex Gordon (3), and Lorenzo Cain.
It doesn’t make sense. It didn’t then and it still didn’t now. How did it happen? He was the best defender in baseball (though not a Gold Glove candidate, further proving that those guys are killing it) at a premier position while his ability to walk and a very unsustainable BABIP allowed him to be a .300 hitter.
But this isn’t a 2021 recap. This season, that walk rate dropped, the BABIP dropped, and his wRC+ that was at 105 last season dropped to a mark of 57 that was nearly identical with his first two seasons (56 and 53).
So what happened and where do we go from here? Let’s take a look.
The answer to this question is somewhat simple. He just regressed to his mean. His walks dropped. His career high .347 BABIP from 2021 dropped to .265 in 2022. That’s in line with the .273 and .260 lines he posted in his first two seasons.
Among batters in 2019 and 2020, Lopez ranks 175 out of 201 in BABIP. That’s the 13th percentile. This season, he ranked 137 out of 167. That’s the 18th percentile. Yet since he entered the league, he ranks 85 out of 136 among batters with at least 1500 plate appearances. That’s the 49th percentile. 2021 was a dramatic outlier in his fortune and 2022 proved to be a brutal regression to the mean.
In those four seasons, Lopez ranks 48 out of 49 batters in hard hit percentage and barrel percentage. In fact, his 2020 hard-hit rate, his worst season, was higher than his 2021 mark. Nicky Lopez was in 2021 what we always knew he was. He’s a decent contact hitter, but a power black hole that makes him extra, extra dependent on fate. That is, hitting it where they ain’t.
So you might say he’s very unlucky. Since he entered the league, he has one of the lowest K% in baseball. He puts the ball in play. Other contact guys like him find holes, so why can’t he? Let’s compare him to the 4-3 king himself, Eric Hosmer. Both Hosmer and Lopez had similar K% across their first four seasons (15.5% v. 14 %). Both hit the ball on the ground a ton (51.8 v. 56.7) and both sprayed the ball across the field. Hosmer notably struggled in 2012 with a brutal .255 BABIP.
But across his other three seasons, it was well above .300, despite hitting lots of ground balls and line drives, like Lopez. Why? Pretty simple. His HardHit% was nearly double that of Lopez’s across his first four seasons (40.2 v. 23.4).
Lopez is a good enough contact hitter, he has speed on the bases, and was once again a tremendous defender. In fact, Jonathan Schoop was the only infielder in the AL with more defensive runs above average than Lopez. We knew he was going to be a power black hole, but have also seen hitters with similar skillsets lean into speed and BABIP to be successful at the plate.
That playing style is hard enough to sustain. It’s made nearly impossible when you don’t hit the all hard. This isn’t rocket science. A Hosmer ground ball into the 4-3 hole with a 90 MPH exit velocity is more likely to get through the hole than a Lopez ground ball to the exact same spot, but at 85 MPH.
Where do we go from here?
Lopez is still an elite defender. He was legitimately good at the plate last season. And Fangraphs wrote a nice piece about him last August asking if his performance at the plate was sustainable. In the piece, Carmen Ciardiello says that Lopez “is hitting over of his skis thus far, but the types of players who have been comparable to him in the past have been much better than the 55 wRC+ Lopez displayed in 2019-20.”
That is probably still true. But we have now seen Lopez in four full seasons. His wRC+ in those seasons:
One of those is not like the others. The others are remarkably similar to each other and span 1074 plate appearances, not a small sample. Is he a hard-luck hitter? Yes. Between 200 and 2020, guys like Willy Aybar, Emilio Bonifacio, and Orlando Cabrera have had similar hard-hit rates with far better (but still not great) BABIP and wRC+ results that would turn Lopez into a player more closely resembling a starter.
However, even if he is, average luck still wouldn’t make him a starting-caliber player. Ciardiello says this:
“An 84 wRC+ would not make Lopez a viable regular, even with elite defense at shortstop or second, but it would make him an extremely useful bench piece going forward.”
Even with terrible production at the plate, he was still a 1.2 fWAR player at the plate. He’s a good role player, but not a starter. Going forward, the Royals need to use him in that way.
What grade would you give Nicky Lopez for his 2022 season?
This poll is closed