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Is Nicky Lopez slumping or regressing?

Is this just a slow start, or is this who he really is?

MLB: MAY 13 Royals at Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Prior to the 2021 season, Nicky Lopez’s career with the Royals was at something of a crossroads. In 159 major league games over the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Lopez had produced a meager slash line of .228/.279/.307. That’s a wRC+ of just 55 and, even with elite defense at second base, he was worth -0.3 fWAR. A spot on the 2021 roster was not a sure thing. A dismal spring training did not help matters: Lopez slashed just .118/.231/.147 in 34 spring at-bats with 13 strikeouts. Meanwhile, his middle infield competition of Whit Merrifield, Bobby Witt Jr., Hanser Alberto, and Adalberto Mondesi had strong springs. After spring training, Lopez was slated to begin the season in AAA. However, an injury to Adalberto Mondesi on the eve of opening day opened the door for Lopez.

Early on, it seemed like Lopez might simply not be a major league quality hitter. After a stretch of four straight hitless games, Lopez ended play on May 7 with a slash line of .200/.310/.271, good for a 65 wRC+. But in his very next game, Lopez hit a triple and his season took off from there. After May 7, Lopez hit .320/.377/.400 for a 115 wRC+. Lopez finished the season hitting .300 and rocking a 106 wRC+. His 6.0 fWAR was the highest single-season total for a Royal since Lorenzo Cain in 2015.

Unfortunately, Lopez has looked much more like his ‘19-’20 form than his ‘21 form so far this season. In 122 plate appearances, he’s slashing .215/.306/.252 for a 72 wRC+. This brings us back to the question posed in the title. Is Lopez simply off to a slow start? After all, he started slow last year too before taking off in the summer. Or, was 2021 the aberration and regression was inevitable?

Lopez’s offensive profile doesn’t leave a lot of room for error. He’s in the same bucket of hitters as Nick Madrigal or David Fletcher. High contact skills are nice, but with precious little power and a non-elite walk rate, these guys basically need to hit around .300 to be even league-average hitters. Lopez was able to do that last year, but it seems fluky. His ‘21 batting average was 72 points higher than his ‘19-’20. His ‘21 BABIP of .347 was 78 points higher than his ‘19-’20 BABIP.

BABIP spikes aren’t necessarily fluky. From 2016-2018, Tim Anderson had a .326 BABIP. Since 2019, that’s gone up to .383. The key to evaluating if a BABIP increase is sustainable is to see if there are any notable changes in a hitter’s contact quality metrics or batted ball profile. In Anderson’s case, there were clear improvements. He’s hit the ball harder over the past four seasons than in the prior three and reduced his pull rate. Hitting the ball harder and up the middle more often is a great way to increase BABIP.

My concern with Lopez, and the reason I wasn’t high on him entering the season: there haven’t been any notable changes in underlying metrics. He did show more of an all-fields approach, but his hard-hit metrics were on par with his ‘20 metrics and he actually hit fewer line drives and more flyballs in ‘21 than in ‘20. This year, between flyballs and popups, he’s hitting more balls in the air than ever. Not ideal for someone without power. Also of note: his pull rate and opposite field rate are both up this year, at the expense of hitting the ball up the middle, which is at a career-low rate. His year-by-year expected stats have shown little change:

I don’t believe Lopez will be this bad all year. With a .258 BABIP, he’s due for some positive regression. I have a hard time believing, however, that it can get back to last year’s levels. With all that said, it’s not like the Royals need Lopez to be an elite hitter. Even with a slightly below-average bat - say around an 85 wRC+ - with his defense up the middle, that’s a valuable player. That’s not impossible for him. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see him repeating his excellent ‘21 performance.