Why Nicky Lopez continues to be an enigma for Royals fans

The Royals have certainly had their fair share of polarizing players in 2020, which is not surprising during a 21-32 season. It’s been a season where many Royals fans have debated fervently about who belongs on this team long-term, and who should probably be on their way out within the next couple of seasons.

And without a doubt, no position player has been more polarizing in 2020 than second baseman Nicky Lopez.

This year, Lopez has continued to put up lackluster numbers at the plate. After posting a .240/.276/.325 slash in 402 plate appearances in 2019, the former Creighton Blue Jay has failed to improve much on last year’s line during this shortened season. Going into Monday’s game against the Cardinals, Lopez was posting a .216/.305/.284 slash with an OPS of .589 and a wRC+ of 66. While Lopez is showcasing better plate discipline than a year ago (0.49 BB/K ratio to a 0.35 ratio a year ago), that has been one of the few positives of his offensive performance this year, as many Royals fans were hoping that a full off-season would parlay into greater gains at the plate in 2020.

Despite Lopez’s struggles offensively, Lopez’s glove has been a different story. Manager Mike Matheny has continued to laud Lopez’s defense all season long, with this comment being shared by Royals beat writer Jeff Flanagan on Twitter over the weekend:

The comment seemed to draw debate among Royals fans on Twitter (even among myself). While Whit Merrifield has primarily played in the outfield in 2020, the acquisition of Edward Olivares and Franchy Cordero from the Padres this year, as well as the development of Khalil Lee and Kyle Isbel at the Alternate Site in 2020, could produce a crowded outfield situation in 2021, especially if the Royals elect to bring Alex Gordon back for one more year (this time in front of fans). And thus, while Lopez certainly possesses the glove to hold down regular playing time at the second-base position, Whit provides more upside at the position with his bat. Furthermore, his glove is serviceable in the infield, even if may not be “Gold Glove”-worthy like Lopez (or at least Gold Glove-worthy in the eyes of Royals management).

And thus, that peculiar situation with Whit makes Lopez’s situation in KC so difficult to project, which in turn makes Lopez an enigma of sorts with Royals fans. Lopez proved this year he is a Major League player, that much is certain thanks to his glove. But is he simply a utility player off the bench, as many Royals fans suggest, due to his lackluster bat? Or is he a slow starter at the plate who could provide some value at the plate next year, even if it never really catches up to his defense or his reputation from when he was in the Minor Leagues?

Lopez has a chance to be a productive MLB second baseman in Kansas City, both in the field and at the plate.

It’s just that it may not be in a way that Royals fans would want or perhaps even expect.

In four Minor League seasons, Lopez has a career Minor League slash of .296/.378/.403 in 352 games and 1,579 plate appearances. Since 2018, Lopez has been a Top 10 prospect in the Royals system, lauded for his elite batting eye and his strong ability to make contact, even if it came at the expense of power. Many prospect experts felt that Lopez had a chance to be a .300 hitter at the Major League level, who could provide great defense and decent speed to make up for a lack of pop.

Unfortunately, while the lack of pop has come to fruition at the Major League level, he has not quite developed into the .300 threat that many prospect experts and Royals fans were hoping. His career batting average at the Major League level is currently .233 in 527 career plate appearances, and while that isn’t a tremendous sample, it’s certainly big enough to at least make a justified decision on who he is as a hitter.

And this just may be the reality: Lopez just may never be a .300 hitter at the MLB level.

That being said, he may not need to be.

While Royals fans may be disappointed that Lopez may never live up to that early projection, it could be time for Royals fans to focus on a different metric when it comes to evaluating Lopez and his future in Kansas City. Instead of dwelling on batting average, which may never touch .300, Royals fans should focus on on-base percentage and BB/K ratio instead.

Because if Royals fans look at those metrics, Lopez’s future looks a lot brighter.

First off, Lopez has improved his OBP by nearly 30 points already this year, and his BB/K ratio has also improved from 0.35 to 0.49. His walk rate has almost doubled from 4.5 percent in 2019 to 10.1 in 2020, and his BB/K ratio ranks third of Royals with 50 or more plate appearances this year. While the hits haven’t really fallen for Lopez in 2020, he has at least showed a better, more disciplined approach in 2020, which is sorely needed for a lineup that is full of free-swingers.

Furthermore, that kind of approach could make Nicky a perfect fit in the nine hole. The Royals will not necessarily need big hits or even a lot of them from that spot in the order. Rather, they need someone to get on base, which Lopez can do via the walk. Considering Whit is not a “traditional” leadoff hitter (i.e. he has good power, is really good at driving in runs and doesn’t draw a whole lot of walks), Lopez may be the perfect fit hitting in front of Whit. Lopez has enough speed to score from first on Whit gap-hits, which Whit has been able to do on frequent occasion.

And thus, Royals fans shouldn’t be expecting Lopez to be a .300 hitter anymore. Instead, Royals fans should be hoping for a .330 to .350 OBP hitter, even if that average is in the .250 to .260 range at best. If Lopez is able to get on base at the kind of clip, then he will more than justify regular playing time at second base in the near future.

While it may sound shocking to hear that Lopez is a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman, the metrics support him. He sits in the 95th percentile defensively, according to Statcast OAA (outs above average) data. Furthermore, he currently ranks 16th out of all fielders in terms of OAA, and leads all second-basemen in terms of OAA as well. Yes, Lopez’s name won’t jump out at baseball writers or baseball fans outside of Kansas City, but the advanced data supports Matheny’s claim that Lopez is one of the better, if not best, defensive second basemen in the American League.

Furthermore, for those who only trust the “eye test”, Lopez has looked pretty good on that end too, as evidenced in the Tweet below:

It seems like Lopez’s defense will keep him in the lineup for now. As stated before, if Lopez can at least get on base at a decent rate, that ability will more than make up for his punch-less swing, which rates in the bottom 6th percentile in terms of barrel rate. That being said, there are two former Royals worth thinking of when trying to project Lopez’s future:

Frank White and Alcides Escobar.

White’s career OPS was .675 during his 18-year-career in Kansas City, and Escobar posted a .644 OPS from 2014-2017, his best stretch as a Royal. Both players certainly had their share of issues at the plate, but they were able to do “just enough” at the dish, which in turn helped them play and contribute every day because their defense in the infield was so solid. If Nicky can improve that OPS to the .630 to .670 range over his career, then not only could Lopez be a dependable option at second for the Royals in the near future, but for the long-term as well.

In fact, if Lopez can prove to be just a shade below of what Frank White was as a Royal (maybe 2-4 Gold Gloves instead of eight like White), I think Royals fans would be more than satisfied with Lopez’s outlook.

After all, it took White nearly five seasons to hit above .250 and only posted an OPS over .600 twice during that span (1973-1977) as well.

I wonder if Royals fans were as hard on White during the early 70’s like they have been on Lopez the past couple of years.

It’s too bad Royals Twitter didn’t exist back then.

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