There is no question that 2020 was a mixed bag for Nicky Lopez in Kansas City. On a positive end, Lopez was a finalist for the AL Gold Glove award, and metrically, he certainly made a strong case that he perhaps deserved the award over eventual winner, Cesar Hernandez of the Cleveland Indians. Furthermore, it seems like Lopez’s glove has a fan in manager Mike Matheny, who not only pushed his second baseman’s candidacy for a Gold Glove last season, but also continued to rave to MLB.com Royals beat writer Jeffrey Flanagan about Lopez’s importance in the field at the keystone position:
“I didn’t think there was a better defender at second base in the league,” Matheny said, “and I think the analytics backed that up. We talk a lot about being strong up the middle, and you can’t get much better than [Adalberto Mondesi] and Nicky at short and second. We saw it so many times, how Nicky changed the game defensively. That’s so important for a young pitching staff, to have that confidence in the players behind you.“Matheny raves about Taylor, 2021 season” by Jeffrey Flanagan; Royals.com
However, Matheny had one caveat about Lopez’s overall performance in 2020:
“And yes, Nicky knows he needs to have better at-bats. That’s a given. That will be his emphasis.”“Matheny raves about Taylor, 2021 season” by Jeffrey Flanagan; Royals.com
Unfortunately for Lopez, Matheny is not alone in his criticism of Lopez’s offensive output, as many Royals fans felt he left a lot to be desired at the plate the past couple of seasons. In 56 games and 192 plate appearances in 2020, Lopez posted a wOBA of .254 and wRC+ of 55, according to Fangraphs. Those lines were a huge disappointment, especially considering that there was a lot of buzz regarding Lopez in the off-season, and in Spring Training, focusing on him gaining weight and looking to hit the ball with more authority in 2021. However, in 159 games and over 594 plate appearances with the Royals, Lopez only has a career wOBA of .258, and a wRC+ of 55 to go along with an accumulated WAR of -0.4.
Thus, it is not surprising that many Royals fans are clamoring for Whit Merrifield to move from the outfield back to his original position of second base, especially considering how big of an upgrade Whit is offensively over the younger Lopez. Furthermore, the Royals don’t seem to be done building this off-season, as they still have two spots to fill on the 40-man roster, and GM Dayton Moore seemed adamant about perhaps adding another left-handed bat to the lineup this off-season:
And thus, with another outfielder perhaps joining the Royals lineup this Winter, the pressure will be on Lopez to defend his starting position from Whit, who would make more sense as the regular starting second baseman next year if the Royals add an outfield free agent. However, what does Lopez need to do to improve his offensive production at the plate in 2021? Yes, he has less than a full-season of at-bats under his belt, but his first two campaigns in Kansas City were eerily similar: a lot of contact, but not a lot of punch or production, even for a bottom-of-the order hitter. A weight gain didn’t seem to make much of a difference from 2019 to 2020, as Lopez’s wOBA in 2019 actually went down six point in 2020. Hence, what else could Lopez do differently to turn things around at the dish next year?
Well, Lopez may need to focus on an “oppo” field hitting mindset this off-season and Spring Training (i.e. trying to hit the ball to the opposite field, which would be toward left field).
Because his Minor League history demonstrates that an “oppo” approach is how he found the most success when when it came to hitting.
There is no question that Lopez’s career line is paltry at best, even for a guy who was known for little power in the Minors. Over his MLB career, the former Creighton Blue Jay product has posted a slash of .228/.279/.307. Granted, he did make some strides in terms of plate discipline in 2020, as he increased his walk rate from 4.5 percent in 2019 to 9.4 in 2020, as well as his BB/K ratio from 0.35 to 0.44. However, the increase in selectivity at the plate has also led to an increase in strikeouts, as his K rate went from 12.7 in 2019 to 21.4 percent in 2020. For a low-power hitter like Lopez (career .078 ISO), more whiffs is not necessarily a good thing, especially for a hitter who continues to hit the ball regularly on the ground (his GB/FB ratio actually increased from 2.80 in 2019 to 2.88 in 2020).
However, while Lopez’s increase in strikeouts and decrease in contact rate (87.1 percent in 2019 to 80.7 in 2020) is much noted, there is one development that is not widely discussed when it comes to Lopez’s offensive struggles:
And that is how much he has pulled the ball at the Major League level.
If one looks at his Minor League batted ball metrics, his ability to hit the ball to the opposite field jumps out immediately. While he did primarily pull the ball in Rookie League Burlington and High-A Wilmington (47.9 and 45.5 pull rates, respectively), his batted ball approach changed once he got to Double-A Northwest Arkansas. With the Naturals in 2017 and 2018, he posted “oppo” batted ball rates of 40.2 and 38.2, respectively, which was over 10 percentage points higher than his oppo rates in Burlington and Wilmington (29.2 at both levels). That trend continued with the Storm Chasers in Omaha in 2018 and 2019, as he posted oppo rates of 40.3 and 40.5, respectively. Furthermore, this emphasis on hitting the ball to left field seemed to be productive for him in the upper Minors, as he posted a career .298 batting average in Double-A and .304 batting average in Triple-A, according to Baseball-Reference.
In his Royals debut in 2019, Lopez still hit the ball to the opposite field a decent amount, as his oppo rate was 33.2 percent, according to Fangraphs. Furthermore, when watching him in person or on tape, most of Lopez’s most natural hits seemed to come when he just flicked his wrists and guided the ball down the third-base side or line, as evidenced in a 2019 highlight video of him below:
However, Lopez seemed to abandon that “oppo” approach in 2020, instead embodying a more selective and power-based hitting style that failed to yield results. Not only did Lopez pull the ball more in 2020 (42.7 pull rate in 2019 to 30.2 pull rate in 2020), but his production dipped, as his average went from .240 to .201, and his exit velocity dipped slightly from 85.1 to 84.9, according to Baseball Savant Statcast data. Sure, Lopez did increase his hard hit rate from 19.5 to 26.7 percent from 2019 to 2020, respectively. But, considering he hit the ball on the ground MORE in 2020 than 2019, those hard hit rates didn’t seem to have much of an effect when it came to improving production.
It will be interesting to see if Lopez goes back to his 2019 hitting approach where he looked to hit the ball to left field and the third base side more, even if didn’t necessarily come with a whole lot of power. While Lopez’s selective batting eye was nice to see and did produce more walks, the Royals need him to get on base more consistently, and it was dubious that his new “patient” approach really helped him improve in that area in 2020.
According to Statcast data, his swing/take profile did show an increase in 11 runs from 2019, mostly stemmed from a better eye in the “heart” of the zone (he improved from -20 to -8 from 2019 to 2020). However, he still was 11 runs UNDER league average, which is still a pretty mediocre mark. Furthermore, his decrease in swing percentage (49.5 to 44.2) also led to a decline in aggressiveness on pitches he SHOULD have been swinging at, as his meatball swing percentage was down from 74.1 percent in 2019 to 63.3 percent in 2020. Hence, one has to wonder that if an increase in aggressiveness early in the count may also help his approach in 2021, for focusing on putting balls in play may work in his favor, rather than looking to hit for power, which isn’t really his forte anyways.
Ideally, it would be nice for Lopez to find a medium between 2019 and 2020: be able to take a walk from time to time, but still concentrate on making contact and preferably hitting the ball to the opposite field, which was his strength in the Minors and in 2019 with the Royals. The Royals don’t need him to be a 10-15 home run hitter. Rather, if he can be a .260-.290 hitter with a .340-.360 OBP, he could be a serious threat at the bottom of the lineup who could effectively become a second leadoff hitter in the lineup.
The pressure will certainly be on Lopez in 2021, and if Moore does acquire that outfielder in free agency as expected, then Lopez will need to show in Spring Training that he can not just be an adequate defensive second baseman, but also a decent hitting one as well. In order for him to do that, he probably should revisit his old “oppo” approach, which could perhaps help him find some consistency at the plate in 2021. If Lopez is able to rekindle that “oppo” hitting mindset and build on it next year, then it is possible that Lopez could have that defensive AND offensive breakout in 2021 that everyone expected from him in 2020.
Which in turn…will make the Royals an incredibly dangerous team in the AL Central division in 2021 and beyond.