In my first post of a short series about “Royals Roster Move Suggestions”, I basically advocated for Kris Bubic to be demoted to Triple-A and for Jon Heasley to replace him in the Royals rotation.
Well, on Thursday, the suggested transaction actually happened, as Heasley made his 2022 Royals debut against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field, which came at the expense of Bubic being sent down to Omaha.
So, if I got one Royals move correct, maybe I can “will” another move into existence…
I know, that’s wishful thinking, but hey, I’ve got to try as a Royals fan, especially as they are 11-19 going into Saturday’s game against the Rockies.
In this post, I am going to primarily look at the infield situation, as I explore Nicky Lopez’s rough start to the 2022 season, and whether the Royals should explore playing him less, especially with Emmanuel Rivera and Bobby Witt, Jr. on the roster.
Nicky and His Struggles Out of the Gate
There’s no question that it was going to be hard for Lopez to repeat in 2022 what he did offensively in 2021.
Last year, after nearly NOT making the Opening Day roster (he only did because Adalberto Mondesi got hurt), Lopez produced .300/.365/.378 slash included a 106 wRC+, 22 stolen bases, and a 6.0 fWAR in 151 games and 565 plate appearances. While Lopez demonstrated a significant absence of power last year (only two home runs; .078 ISO), he cut down his K rate from 21.4 percent in 2020 to 13.7 in 2021. This helped improve his BB/K ratio from 0.44 to 0.67, which made him a more valuable on-base threat, something he struggled with back in his first two seasons with the Royals.
Lopez is still showcasing a good eye at the plate. The former Creighton Blue Jay product is producing a career-high walk rate of 9.3 percent, and his 0.59 BB/K ratio shows that he’s maintaining solid plate discipline, which is much-needed for a Royals lineup that is full of free-swinging hitters.
On the other hand, there was a big worry that Lopez benefited from a high BABIP campaign a year ago, as it was .347 in that category in 2021, which is well above league average. This season, his BABIP has plummeted to .247, and it’s not surprising that Lopez, despite generating walks, is only batting .202 with an OPS of .533 in 108 plate appearances going into Saturday’s game.
A big reason for the decrease in BABIP (batting average of balls in play) can be traced to many of the same issues with Whit Merrifield: a decline in line drive rate, coupled with a sharp increase in pop-up rate.
Here’s a look at Lopez’s batted ball data, via Fangraphs, over the course of his four-year career thus far:
Lopez has always struggled with hitting too many groundballs, as his GB/FB rate was nearly three in his first two seasons in the Majors. What helped last year though was that not only did he hit more flyballs, but he was hitting more line drives and limiting the number of infield flyballs as well.
In 2021, he posted a line drive rate of 21.4 percent, which was a decrease from his 25.6 line drive rate in 2020. On the flip side, he decreased his pop-up rate by 3.1 percent, which was a major development, especially since pop-ups rarely, if ever, go for base hits.
This season, it’s been a different story.
His line-drive rate is 8.2 percent lower than a season ago, and he’s also producing an astronomical 25 percent pop-up rate. For a hitter who relies on contact as much as Lopez, hitting that many pop-ups is a recipe for disaster, and is a key contributor to his near 100-point difference in BABIP from a season ago.
Now, some Royals fans may say “Well, Lopez is hitting more flyballs, so that’s good, right?”
Fly balls are good for power hitters who rely on the long ball, like Salvy and Jorge Soler a year ago. But for hitters who rely on speed and contact, line drive and even groundball rates are preferable.
And Lopez’s average exit velocity doesn’t bode well for a hitter who hits multiple fly balls.
Lopez’s average exit velocity is down to 83.5 MPH, which ranks him in the bottom first percentile, according to Savant. Unfortunately, this has been a disappointing trend, as he was starting to generate more exit velocity on batted balls by the end of 2021, which can be demonstrated in the breakdown chart data below:
With subpar line drive rates, as well as average exit velocity on batted balls, it will be difficult for Lopez to be the productive hitter that he once was only a season ago. Couple that with an increase in swinging-strike rate (8.6 percent), and the outlook for him continues to look bleaker by the game.
After all, Lopez only produced a wRC+ of 56 in 2019 and 55 in 2020, which were seasons where his BABIP was .273 and .260, respectively. For a period of time, it seemed like Lopez would be a backup infielder and little else. Thankfully for Lopez and Royals fans, he proved that he could have a good season offensively in 2021, especially when batted ball luck swayed in a positive direction for him.
However, if Lopez continues to showcase these batted ball struggles for the remainder of this year, he may produce an offensive season in 2022 that may be closer to 2019 and 2020 rather than his breakout season of 2021.
What Has Been the Difference Between This Season and Last?
Royals fans know that Lopez is struggling to find hits and generate exit velocity and productive contact on a consistent basis. That being said, what has been the difference between 2022 and 2021?
When looking at Lopez’s expected batting average zone charts from 2022 and 2021, some interesting trends begin to appear.
Here’s a look at Lopez’s expected batting average (xBA) zone chart from last season:
Notice the amount of red all over the strike zone. Yes, he was sub-.250 in a lot of areas, but the chart showed that Lopez couldn’t totally be exploited in one area of the strike zone unless pitchers caused him to chase pitches out of the strike zone.
Now, let’s take a glance at his xBA zone chart from this season:
In the “red” areas in the strike zone, he’s hitting the ball better than ever (2, 5, and 6). Unfortunately, he’s posting subpar xBA marks in nearly every area of the strike zone outside of those three red zones.
The biggest regression has been on the outside edge of the plate, specifically zones 1, 4, and 7.
In 2021, he posted an xBA of .240, .299, and .246, respectively. This season? Those marks are .026, .192, and .101, all significant declines.
And it’s obvious that Lopez is struggling with those outside pitches, especially when Royals fans see him at the plate.
Here’s an example of Lopez swinging and missing on a Martin Perez four-seamer against the Rangers, which is located right in that zone 4 area.
On the other end, let’s take a look at an at-bat he had last August against Marco Gonzales of the Mariners in Seattle, another left-handed pitcher. Gonzales throws a hard fastball on the outside edge of the strike zone, but the result is much different for Lopez:
Therefore, how Nicky can improve on pitches away from him on the plate will be a key indicator when it comes to whether or not he can turn it around offensively this season.
What is interesting to note when digging into Lopez’s splits this year is that Lopez is actually hitting much better against left-handed pitchers than right-handed ones. Here’s a look at Lopez’s advanced splits data, which comes via Fangraphs:
He is walking less against left-handed pitchers. However, BABIP has been more favorable for him on batted balls against lefties, and he is posting a much better wRC+ as well.
When it comes to righties though, it’s been a much different story for Lopez so far this year. He’s walking more (11.5 percent) and posting a much better batting eye (0.69 BB/K ratio), but he’s been getting killed on a BABIP-end. That’s a key reason why his wRC+ is 25 points lower against righties.
And the cause of those BABIP woes against right-handed pitchers can be found in his batted ball data below:
Against lefties, Lopez is hitting way more line drives (26.1 percent), and he’s doing a much better job going up the middle (43.5 percent). He’s not hitting the ball harder against lefties (17.4 percent hard-hit rate), but he’s doing a better job of hitting the ball all over the diamond, which has been more fruitful for Lopez when it comes to finding base hits.
When it comes to Lopez hitting right-handers this year, it’s almost been a completely different approach.
He’s hitting the ball 4.4 percent harder against righties, but he’s pulling the ball 13.9 percent more as well. And, all of his pop-ups have come against righties, like this one below against the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole at Kauffman Stadium:
It will be interesting to see what Lopez will do going forward against right-handed pitchers, especially since it seems like a majority of his struggles at the plate this year has come against righties, not lefties.
A big key for him going forward will be improving in terms of hitting the ball up the middle against right-handed hitters, as his straightaway batted ball rate is 18 percent lower than that same rate against lefties.
A more oppo-away approach against righties could make him more effective offensively, and could also help him cut down on that massive pop-up rate, which is a key reason why his BABIP is so low to begin the season.
What Do the Royal Do Going Forward in the Infield?
Lopez has regularly demonstrated “Gold Glove-caliber defense” since debuting in 2019. In fact, there were many Royals fans, including myself, who felt Lopez got robbed of Gold Glove consideration a season ago, especially since he led all shortstops in OAA in 2021.
This season has been a bit of a different story though for Lopez.
Even though Adalberto Mondesi didn’t show much offensively this year before his season-ending knee injury, he was arguably the Royals’ best defensive player, as he currently still leads all Royals players in OAA, as of May 14th.
On the other hand, Lopez ranks much differently this year, and not just compared to Mondesi, but where he was a season ago, which can be seen in the Savant OAA table below:
The fact that Lopez has been six outs WORSE than Mondesi this year at shortstop is a huge red flag for Lopez going forward. The Royals can live with his inconsistent bat, as long as he’s producing elite defense up the middle. But if his glove is lagging as well, then that puts Mike Matheny in a difficult situation, especially considering the Royals’ hitting struggles in 2022.
Granted, I am not ready to say Lopez is a subpar defender just yet. It’s still early, and around this time last year, Whit Merrifield was also rating poorly defensive at second base. Thus, with Lopez mostly going to be situated at shortstop going forward, it will be interesting to see if Lopez’s OAA bounces back up after some adjustment at the position.
That being said, the Royals also have Bobby Witt, Jr. who can play shortstop and Emmanuel Rivera who can play third. Both players have not just been better defensively than Nicky so far this year, but they also offer a power upside that Lopez cannot match to boot.
The presence of those two infield options will put pressure on Matheny to be less patient with Lopez in comparison to seasons past. And, at 11-19 going into Saturday’s game against the Rockies, the Royals need to do all they can to win games, especially on the offensive end.
It hasn’t been a great start to the year for Lopez. While there will be some improvement for Lopez eventually, it will be interesting to see how quickly Lopez will be able to turn it around against righties, as well as cut down his pop-up rate.
Right now, the Royals need that to happen soon.
Or else Matheny may trot out more lineups with Rivera at third, Witt, Jr. at shortstop, and Whit at second base…
With Lopez, obviously, on the bench.
Photo Credit: Gary Rohman-USA TODAY Sports