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Making sense of Nicky Lopez’s inexplicable 2021 season

5.9 fWAR. Literally what.

Cleveland Indians v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

I love a good sports anomaly. The 2022 Minnesota Vikings, for instance, are an instant classic. A team winning nearly 75% of its games (13-4) despite finishing the season with a negative point differential makes no sense.

According to DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), the Vikings ranked #27 out of 32 teams. On offense, defense, and special teams, they ranked #20, #27, and #30 respectively. We have seen bad teams eek out 10 wins thanks to an easy schedule and high-variance wins (see: 2010 Chiefs). We have never seen a bottom-third team flirting with the #1 seed.

Well, I guess we have. Nicky Lopez pretty much did the same thing in 2021. In 2019-20 and 2022, Lopez posted a 55 wRC+ and a 0.9 fWAR. Sandwiched in there is 2021, where he posted a 105 wRC+ and a 5.9 fWAR. It’s one thing to go from being a historically bad hitter to being serviceable with good defense. But going from one of the worst players in baseball to having a season that, based on Fangraphs’ own fWAR explainer, could have warranted some MVP votes is a completely different thing.

But that’s exactly what Nicky did. He has been 75% historically bad and 25% MVP. And we still don’t know what the heck happened. So let’s try to make sense of it.

75% historically bad

Since 2018, Nicky ranks #307 out of 315 batters in wRC+. He has had three seasons with a sub-60 wRC+. Since 1969, on 219 batters have had such a season when they step into the batter’s box at least 400 times (or 190 in the shortened 2020 season).

With his 2022 season, Lopez joined an exclusive club of batters to have three such seasons. Only ten other batters made that list, half of which played their last games before the turn of the century. The list includes names like Brad Ausmus, Johnnie LeMaster, Larry Bowa, Rey Ordonez, and yes, Neifi Perez.

It’s a unique list of baseball players. Every player on the list is a middle infielder except for Ausmus, with the vast majority being primary shortstops and good defenders. That part makes sense. Ausmus and Bowa finished their careers with fWARs of 17.6 and 16.7.

But among that list, Lopez stands alone. His 5.9 fWAR is the highest of the 141 individual seasons played by these players. No other player got to 5. And Lopez has, by far, played the fewest seasons. He has played four seasons, including a shortened 2020 season. Ordonez is the next closest with nine.

It took just four seasons for Lopez to have three sub-60 wRC+ seasons, all before he turned 28. The median age of every other player having their third such season was 31 and most had played nearly a decade's worth of seasons before getting to three. He rapidly joined this list. Oh, but right in the middle of those four seasons was a fringe MVP-caliber season.

25% MVP

Historically, Lopez has already been one of the worst hitters in baseball history among players getting the number of plate appearances he gets. And entering his third season, there was no reason to think that would change. He nearly doubled his BB% in his sophomore season, but did the same with his K%. His wOBA and wRC+ both decreased from his rookie season to his sophomore season and, to that point, he had one career stolen base.

His xwOBA stood out a bit at .287 compared to his .254 actual wOBA, but that wasn’t enough to anticipate what happened. In 2021, Lopez almost literally doubled his career wRC+. This was largely due to him walking a decent amount and having his BABIP skyrocket. He was worth 11.9 offensive runs above average, as well as 8.2 baserunning runs above average, fourth best in baseball, thanks to 22 stolen bases. But what really made 2021 special was his 28 defensive runs above average, which were tops in baseball.

He was an out-of-his-mind defender who had the best-batted ball luck of his career, culminating in the most out-of-nowhere season this side of 2019 Hunter Dozier. But how out of nowhere was it really?

Mike Sweeney, Frank White, Hal McRae, Johnny Damon, Whit Merrifield, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer. All, at worse, have strong cases to be Royals Hall of Famers and most are Royals legends.

None of them have a single 5.9 fWAR season to their name. For any of the teams they’ve ever played on. Johnny Damon was a legitimate fringe Hall of Fame candidate!

Only eight men who have had the Royals script across their chest posted a higher single-season fWAR than Lopez in 2021. Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain, two of the best player in Royals history, both did it once.

That’s not to mention that his expected wOBA was in the bottom 6% of the league in 2021! In other words, based on how hard he was hitting the ball and how he was hitting the ball, Baseball Savant viewed him as a bottom 6% hitter. His HardHit% was in the bottom 4% of the league and his xSLG in the bottom 2%. So when I say this season came out of nowhere, I mean that even within the season, his production didn’t make sense.

What we have learned

So for those keeping score at home, Nicky Lopez has played four season. In 75% of them, he has been one of the worst hitters in MLB history for batters with as many plate appearances as he had. And for the other 25%, he was a fringe MVP candidate while hitting the ball like a bottom 6% hitter.

So yeah, the headline was a bit deceiving. There is no making sense of 2021 Nicky Lopez. It was a wild, once-in-a-generation, out-of-nowhere season. As for this season, third base belongs to Hunter Dozier, which means Nicky will be fighting for a job. Barring injury, we’ve likely seen the last of Nicky Lopez the regular.

But we will always have 2021. And Nicky Lopez the backup is a much more valuable player anyway.