In praise of Nicky Lopez
The shortstop has been a most pleasant surprise for the Royals in 2021. He put on quite a show in Thursday afternoon's game.
Forget about the win-loss record for a moment, or where the Royals reside in the standings in the AL Central. The baseball that we saw at The K over the last four games was top-notch.
That Rob Manfred’s crusade against baseball was played out in extra innings (and Mike Matheny was reduced to the unsavory choice of Ervin Santana or Wade Davis for the tenth inning with a runner magically appearing on second base) shouldn’t tarnish what transpired over the previous 36 innings. Yes, the Royals blew a 3-0 lead and Matheny was too slow with the hook as Mike Minor took on the Astros lineup for the third time, but the overall product was very pleasing. A 6-3 extra-inning loss certainly wasn’t the desired outcome.
Until the 10th inning, this game was all about Nicky Lopez.
The defensive metrics I prefer to use are split on how Lopez performs at shortstop. Statcast and their Outs Above Average (OAA) has Lopez as a premium defender, worth 12 OAA, second-best in the AL behind only the Twins Andrelton Simmons. Meanwhile, the Fielding Bible isn’t so charitable, awarding Lopez with a +2 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) mark. That puts him more as a middle-of-the-pack defender, well behind the leaders Carlos Correa and Isiah Kiner-Falefa who both grade out at +13 DRS.
Lopez receives positive marks for his arm and both OAA and DRS agree that he’s a much better defender going to his right than to his left.
Did I say he’s a better defender going to his right?
This was, hands down, one of the most impressive plays I’ve seen any defender make in 2021. Everything about this play is perfect. The quick-twitch reaction to get to the ball in the first place. The knowledge that he has a certain amount of time to get the ball to first given the runner. The ability to get to his feet quickly while transferring the ball from his glove to his hand. And finally, bouncing the ball not once but twice to first baseman Carlos Santana and giving him a perfect between hop throw to catch.
Let’s go to the replay!
Whew, there’s a lot going on here for just one play.
But that’s what Lopez has given to Kansas City defensively in 2021. He has filled in for the oft-injured Adalberto Mondesi and has provided more than adequate cover at the position. In fact, Lopez has put himself squarely in the conversation for the Gold Glove at shortstop. I think he’s a long shot to win the award, but with highlight plays like this on his resume, he can certainly be a finalist. And coming one year after he was a finalist at second base, that’s an amazing accomplishment. Seriously, that he can slide over from second to short and play that position as well as he has, is just fantastic.
Offensively, what do you all think of this?
Yes, this is a Nicky Lopez dinger. It was his first home run in 464 at bats. If you were one of the 9,884 in attendance, you could leave the yard happy because you saw something that almost never happens.
Lopez joked after the game about it maybe being a wall-scraper, but he really shouldn’t be so modest when he flexes that kind of power, The home run was legit.
The home run was great fun, and Thursday’s game was truly all about Lopez through the first five innings or so, but I’ll use this newsletter to continually remind you what a solid offensive performer Lopez has become in 2021. He’s not great with the bat, but he does give quality plate appearance after quality plate appearance.
He currently possesses a 96 wRC+ and a 93 OPS+, which puts him in the slightly below average range when it comes to production at the plate. Most of this is the result of his lack of power. In addition to that home run, Lopez has 12 doubles and five triples in 2021. His extra-base hit percentage sits at 4.8 percent, the lowest in the league by quite a bit. Myles Straw is second-lowest at 5.1 percent.
Lopez barrels just 1.1 percent of pitches he puts in play and his hard-hit rate of 27.4 percent is in the bottom fourth percentile in baseball. But that’s not his game. His game is about that quality plate appearance.
Lopez swings at the first pitch he sees only a quarter of the time. He has become a more selective hitter, chasing pitches outside of the zone at a rate of about 24 percent. And when he swings at pitches in the zone, he’s making contact over 90 percent of the time. This is a batter who doesn’t get himself out.
I’ve said for most of this season that Lopez is the perfect number nine hitter. Matheny has moved him up in the order of late, hitting him second in the series in St. Louis and keeping him there for seven of the 10 games of the just-completed homestand. I don’t like him there because, as we’ve seen, the Royals just can’t help themselves and want to sacrifice like hell. Bunts anytime are generally bad. First inning bunts are straight-up evil.
I can’t emphasize this enough, in a season where not much has gone right for the Royals, the development of Nicky Lopez as an everyday contributor has been a most pleasing surprise. This was a guy who played himself out of a starting job in spring training and was optioned to the minor league camp. The Mondesi injury ahead of Opening Day was the opening he needed and since then, he’s been one of the more steady and reliable performers on this club.
In the day where we celebrate exit velocity and launch angle, it’s fun to watch a hitter like Lopez do his thing.