Are Royals fans seeing the Nicky Lopez that everyone expected him to be?

Right now, it’s pretty good to be a Royals fan. The Royals won another series, taking three out of four from the Blue Jays this week (of course, the Royals lose the one game I attend in person in this series), and are currently 9-5 and a top of the AL Central Standings by 1.5 games.

Furthermore, the Royals are one of two teams this year that have not lost a series so far this year, as evidenced by this graphic below:

However, one of the most interesting stories to develop this week was the return of former and KC Star Royals beat writer Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter, who shared some interesting “Royals Unfiltered” threads on his Twitter.

Flanny talked about the Royals’ decision to hire Mike Matheny as well as his relationship with Ned Yost, and how Yost changed his demeanor after the 2014 magical playoff run. That being said, probably the most interesting thread of the bunch was his recollection of Nicky Lopez’s call up in 2019, and how Royals fans kind of “turned on him” when he didn’t live up to the hype.

Here’s the thread below:

It’s a pretty epic thread, but here is how Flanny closes things out in the Tweet below:

So far, Nicky Lopez is actually having a pretty solid start to 2021, even though he had a rough Spring Training and was initially optioned to Triple-A Omaha. Currently, he’s batting .282 with a .341 OBP and OPS of .700 in 14 games and 39 at-bats. He’s walked four times and only struck out five times, and he’s also stolen two bases on two attempts this season.

Basically, Lopez has been the player Royals fans sort of imagined he would be when he was first called up in 2019, only it took him about two seasons to get there, roughly. Furthermore, Lopez’s stellar play will make things interesting once Adalberto Mondesi returns off the IL, as Royals fans have to wonder if Matheny will bury Lopez on the bench despite his solid contributions offensively and defensively thus far.

That being said, while Lopez’s solid start certainly connects to Flanny’s Tweet thread, what is more interesting about the thread is recollecting the “Nicky Lopez” hype back in 2019. Yes, there was some excitement in regard to Nicky, especially with him going to college at Creighton in Omaha (where a large Royals fan base is based out of), and his solid contact and defensive skills. That being said, was there an “over-hype” over Lopez from Royals fans initially, and has he developed enough to overcome those initial disappointments he experienced early on in his career?

Thus, let’s take a look at Lopez’s profile thus far in 2021, what he’s done to improve at the plate, and whether this strong start will satisfy Royals fans who had such high hopes for him when he first debuted in Kansas City in 2019.

Lopez’s success against the fastball in 2021

After Sunday’s Blue Jays finale, Lopez is posting a wOBA of .310 in 45 plate appearances this year, according to Baseball Savant. The biggest difference for Lopez has been him lowering his K rate from 21.4 percent in 2020 to 12.2 percent in 2021. In 2019, Lopez had a similar K rate, which was 12.7 percent. That being said, Lopez didn’t walk very much, as he only posted a walk rate of 4.5 percent, which ranked him in the bottom seven percent of the league.

Last season, Lopez did improve his walk rate to 9.4 percent, though it came at the expense of more strikeouts. This season, not only has he lowered his strikeout rate back to his 2019 total, but he has maintained his walk rate around his 2020 level, as it currently sits at 9.8 percent, entering Monday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays. This is what Royals fans hoped from Lopez when he first debuted in 2019: that solid combination of contact and plate discipline skills that made him such a fast riser in the Royals minor league sysem.

So what has been key to Lopez’s success this year in regard to maintaining high contact and a keen batting eye? His ability to catch up more on the fastball.

Last season, though he performed best against the fastball (.322 wOBA against fastballs last year), he still whiffed 16.1 percent of the time against the pitch, not exactly a stellar mark for a contact hitter. Lopez was particularly bad against middle to high fastballs in the zone, as evidenced by his K zone chart on fastballs from a year ago:

Those upper left parts of the strike zone is where he struggled immensely, as evidenced by those 40 percent and 66.7 percent strikeout rates in those particular zones. In fact, take a look at Lopez whiffing on this Carlos Martinez fastball around that zone a year ago.

This year, his K rate on the fastball has dipped to 7.7 percent, which is not only 8.4 points lower than his K rate on the pitch last year, but also 4.3 points lower than his mark against the pitch in 2019. Additionally, let’s take a look at his Zone K chart on the pitch this year thus far, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

As Royals fans can see, it’s been a dramatic change and in a good way for Lopez. Yes, he’s still close to his percentage mark in the upper left part of the zone, which is out of the strike zone, at 33.3 percent. However, everything else has declined dramatically, especially that upper left portion inside the strike zone, which was at 66.7 percent in 2020. Furthermore, take a look at how Lopez makes an adjustment against a similar pitch to the 2020 one that Lopez struck out on before.

Instead of swinging and missing badly, Lopez is shorter in his load, quicker in his reactions, and is able to drive it to the opposite field to leg out a triple. While it is not a bash, well-placed hits like the one above could be part of Lopez’s ability to generate extra bases on hits, especially with his underrated speed (his sprint speed ranks in the 88th percentile according to Savant).

It will be interesting to see if Lopez will be able to keep this approach throughout the year, and continue to have success against the fastball. He is also seeing similar whiff regression against breaking balls, as his whiff rate has gone from 32.4 percent in 2020 to 11.1 percent in 2021. However, he has not really seen substantial difference in terms of production on that particular pitch, as his wOBA on breaking balls is actually lower this year (.162) than last season (.177).

Thus, how productive he is may depend on his ability against the fastball and his ability to adjust to it, especially in two-strike counts.

So far, the results have been good for not just Lopez, but consequently, the Royals offense as a whole.

Will his “high contact, lack of power” style be enough for Royals fans (especially those who wanted him to be “Whit Lite”)?

Lopez is experiencing a strong start at the plate, but Lopez right now is proving to be not much of a different hitter from seasons past when it comes hard hit ball production, as evidenced by his 2021 percentile rankings, via Baseball Savant:

Right now, he is producing, but it will be difficult for him to produce long-term with such lackluster exit velocity, hard hit, and barrel rates. Soft-hit balls can only find holes in the defense so much of the time, after all.

In fact, when looking to similar batters to Nicky Lopez on Baseball Savant, this is the list that Lopez’s profile generates:

  • 2020-Nico Hoerner
  • 2020-Tommy Edman
  • 2020-Delino Deshields
  • 2019-Cesar Hernandez
  • 2020-Mike Tauchman

It’s not an entirely inspiring list. But then again, if Lopez does end up producing something similar to one or more of the players listed above, that may be good enough for a utility infielder who could start up the middle for stretches of time when a Royals infielder hits the Injured List.

Of course, will that be good enough for Royals fans and their expectations of Lopez?

It’s hard to say as of now. Back in 2019, it seemed like Royals fans had hopes that Lopez was going to be a Whit-like player with more defensive upside, and less power upside. That projection some Royals fans envisioned for him was probably rash, and even I can admit I was guilty of thinking that Lopez could probably be a “lite version” of that Whit-model. I thought the low-draft status, the “sleeper” movement in the Royals system, and some weight gain in the 2020 off-season would produce a kind of breakout that would help Lopez be a possible everyday player, especially with his glove. That being said, even in a solid start, Lopez is what he is, and that is a “high contact, low power, glove first” player who is better off in a utility role rather than a regular one, at the end of the day.

Even Flanny seemed to hint that the “overhyping” of a possible “Whit-esque breakout” was not even seen as a possibility from the Royals brass when he brought it up:

The Royals will return Mondesi soon, and his return most likely will spell the end for Lopez in the lineup every day. Will Royals fans be okay with that, now that the luster is gone? Will Lopez be able to still produce in the role? Will Lopez continue to play defense and hit, but with not much power, to maybe earn a starting spot in the second half of the year? And if so, will Royals fans be okay with his outlook, even if it may come at the expense of maximizing the offensive potential of this Royals lineup?

Flanny’s thread brought up some good and rough memories of Lopez’s last two years. Honestly, he was unfairly hyped up to be something that he wasn’t when he was called up in 2019. After all, he never was on any Top 100 prospect lists, and even as a Royal, he never ranked higher than 5th in the Royals system, according to Baseball America. Yes, Whit surpassed expectations as a member of the Royals organization, but Whit should be seen as an extreme example of success, not a standard for player development.

Already, Royals fans are giving that “Whit Comp” to other infielders in the Royals system. Nick Loftin and Clay Dungan are already two prospects who have been given “Whit-like” comparisons, and it would probably be best for Royals fans to cool down on those statements for now.

After all, look at how it’s affected Lopez, who has failed to live up to that unfair comparison in his time in Kansas City thus far. He’s a perfectly good and serviceable player, he’s just not Whit.

Let’s hope he gets a full chance this year, be it as a regular or utility player, to show Royals fans how valuable he can be, even if he can’t match that Whit standard, especially at the plate.

And let’s hope Royals fans cool on that Whit comparison…

Especially for the sake of Loftin and Dungan.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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