What Kind of Future Does Nicky Lopez Have With the Royals?

The Royals are currently 49-72, having just recently snapped a four-game losing streak on this road trip with a 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays.

A big reason for the Royals’ recent struggles against Minnesota (whom the Royals were swept by) and Tampa Bay is the lackluster performance of the Royals’ offense. From August 15th to August 18th, the Royals were outscored by the Twins and Rays 24-3. That included a 33-inning scoreless streak, the second time this season that the Royals have experienced such a stretch of ineptitude at the plate.

The Royals have been primarily led offensively after the All-Star break by a young core of hitters. That not only includes Bobby Witt, Jr., MJ Melendez, and Vinnie Pasquantino, who have been the primary catalysts, but also Nick Pratto, Michael Massey, Kyle Isbel, and Nate Eaton, who have seen more playing time since the August 2nd trade deadline.

However, the Royals lineup is still getting contributions from a small number of veterans, even though that group is far smaller than the one in Royals uniform on Opening Day.

Salvador Perez still strikes out a lot (and doesn’t walk either), but he offers a veteran and powerful presence at the plate that is much-needed in the Royals lineup. On the other hand, the Royals lineup has been hurt by the recent struggles of Hunter Dozier, Michael A. Taylor, and Nicky Lopez, who all have questionable futures in Kansas City after this season.

In this post, I am going to take a look at Lopez, who offers valuable leadership in the clubhouse but has struggled immensely at the plate this season after a breakout in 2021.

Lopez’s Nosedive at the Plate in 2022

There was no question that Lopez was one of the Royals’ most valuable players last year on a defensive and offensive end in 2021.

Lopez was a Gold Glove candidate during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, and he should’ve been at least a Gold Glove nominee at shortstop in 2021 as well. But it was his development at the plate in 2021 that really made him a fan favorite in Kansas City.

After posting a 56 wRC+ in 2019 and 55 wRC+ in 2020, Lopez improved his wRC+ to 106 in 2021 in 565 plate appearances. His triple slash last year was .300/.365/.378, and he also stole 22 bases in 23 attempts. With stellar defense, Lopez produced an fWAR of 6.0, which not only led all Royals players last year but was nearly double the mark of the Royals’ second-best player on an fWAR end.

There was hope that while Lopez wouldn’t hit for power, his high-contact, low-strikeout approach (0.66 BB/K ratio in 2021) would at least make him a valuable hitter at the bottom of the order for the next few seasons. His defense would always be Lopez’s strongest tool (and power his weakest), but in 2021, Lopez at least showed signs that he could be an everyday player in the Royals infield in 2022 and beyond.

Unfortunately, the offense for Lopez has regressed big time in 2022.

In over 390 plate appearances, Lopez is slashing .239/.292/.282 with a wRC+ of 64. His K rate has increased 1.5 percentage points from a year ago, while his walk rate has declined 2.8 percent, hence producing a BB/K ratio of 0.40, 24 points worse from his 2021 mark. In addition, Nicky has hit the ball with less authority in 2022, as his average exit velocity is down 1.5 points, and his hard-hit rate of 23.9 percent is the second-lowest mark of his four-year career at the MLB level.

As one can see from Lopez’s hard-hit breakdown chart below via Savant, he has clearly been under the league-average mark on a hard-hit rate end for all of 2022. That is a disappointing trend, especially after touching the average mark last year at one point in 2021.

As Royals fans can see, his hard-hit rates mirror his marks in 2019 and 2020, which were very subpar offensive seasons for Lopez.

And that hints that maybe 2021 could be simply an aberration for the Royals infielder rather than a sign of things to come.

Why is Nicky Struggling Offensively?

When it comes to analyzing Lopez’s struggles at the dish this year, two big trends emerge: he’s swinging way more at the plate, and he’s struggling against non-fastball pitches this season, especially offspeed ones.

In terms of the first point, let’s take a look at Lopez’s plate discipline data, which measures swing metrics, via Fangraphs:

Lopez’s swinging-strike rate is two percent higher this year, but his called-strike rate is 1.7 percent lower, which is producing a CSW (called strike plus whiff) rate of 25.4 percent. That is only a 0.3 percent difference from 2021. But, the big difference has been that Lopez is swinging 48.3 percent of the time this year at the plate, which is 3.9 percent higher than a year ago.

This increase is having an impact in all kinds of ways.

First, it’s producing more swings on pitches outside of the strike zone, which is never a recipe for success. His O-Swing percentage (swings on pitches outside the strike zone) is 5.3 percent higher this year, which contributes to his lower contact rate (83.4 percent; 3.1 percent lower than a year ago) and increased swinging strike rate. Additionally, Lopez’s more eager approach is something pitchers are taking advantage of as well, as his Zone rate (pitches seen in the strike zone) has decreased to 42.8 percent, a 1.9 percent drop from 2021.

Maybe Lopez is pressing due to his struggles at the plate, especially in August (.231 average; .517 OPS this month). Nonetheless, his increase in swings at the plate has seemed to adversely affect his overall performance offensively this year.

In terms of the second point, let’s take a look at Lopez’s career trends against different pitching groups since he debuted in 2019:

Lopez saw significant improvements on a wOBA end against breaking balls and offspeed pitches in 2021. Unfortunately, that progress against those two pitches stagnated in 2022, as he regressed slightly against breaking balls and SIGNIFICANTLY against offspeed pitches.

And a similar chart, but on an xWOBA basis, seems to confirm his struggles against offspeed pitches (and vice versa, refutes his struggles against the breaking ball this year).

Against offspeed pitches, Lopez is hitting .067 with a .145 xBA, according to Savant. Two things primarily happen when Lopez sees offspeed stuff this year.

He either swings over it, which is evidenced by his 27 percent K rate against the pitch and this strikeout on a split-finger pitch from Boston’s Hirozaku Sawamura.

Or he hits the ball on the ground weakly, which is demonstrated by his six percent hard-hit rate on the pitch, and this weak groundout to the second baseman on a changeup from White Sox reliever Matt Foster.

Unfortunately in Lopez’s case, his historical data against the changeup doesn’t signify a lot of hope that Nicky will be able to turn things around down the stretch or even beyond this season.

Granted, he hit .297 and produced a wOBA of .264 against the changeup in 2021, both career highs. That being said, his .156 and .162 marks in 2020 and 2019, respectively, hint that his struggles this year are more in line with what Royals fans should expect from Nicky against the pitch going forward in 2023 and beyond.

What Should His Role Be Going Forward?

Despite his offensive struggles, Lopez continues to thrive in the Royals infield.

Despite playing three different positions this year (shortstop, second base, and third base), Nicky still leads all qualified Royals players on an out above-average (OAA) end, according to Savant.

At the very least, Lopez has proved that he has value to this Royals team, especially in the short term, on the defensive end.

While the Royals are still a solid defensive team this year (though not as good as a year ago), the Royals have seen their young guys go through growing pains on the defensive end. Not only is Witt posting a team-worst -8 OAA, but when looking at “non-qualified” Royals fielders, Michael Massey is also producing a subpar OAA mark at -4.

Lopez can prevent runs and acquire outs in the field, and that’s a big reason why he is still producing a 1.2 fWAR this year, despite his rough offensive numbers.

But is Nicky solely a defensive utility guy off the bench at this point That is looking to be the case, unless something dramatic happens this offseason or Spring.

The lack of power makes Lopez extremely reliant on balls finding holes to be productive as a hitter. And his .284 BABIP demonstrates that he hasn’t been able to find them as often this year in comparison to last (.347 BABIP in 2021).

If his 2019 (.273) and 2020 (.260) BABIP marks are any indication, this year’s BABIP mark should be the expectation for Nicky going forward in this area, with any .300 mark in that category in a season going forward being a pure luxury.

But even despite those “lessened” expectations from a season ago, Nicky still have value to this team and should still be around at least in 2023.

His defense is special and he provides good and efficient speed on the basepaths. In terms of baserunning, not only does he lead the Royals in baserunning runs generated (5.0), but his mark is considerably better than former Royals such as Whit Merrifield (2.1) and Andrew Benintendi (-1.3).

Nicky is the kind of player who can not just play 2-3 times a week, but also come in on a defensive or baserunning end in late innings spots for a competitive or even playoff team.

Lastly, he’s got a personality that brings levity and energy to the clubhouse, which is much needed for this young team.

It’s been a rough year for Nicky at the plate, and the days of him being an everyday player may have gone out the window, especially with the emergence of Massey and Maikel Garcia this season.

But don’t count out Lopez’s future in Kansas City.

He can still be a key part on a competitive Royals team, even if it may be in a utility infielder role off the bench.

Photo Credit: Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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