Nicky Lopez Is The Most Fascinating Player In Major League Baseball

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    As Major League Baseball has shifted more towards advanced stats and sabermetrics, traditionalist views aren’t as widely accepted anymore. Two current examples of this are Yasmani Grandal and Joey Gallo. In 2021, Grandal has a .217 batting average and Gallo has a .201 batting average. These averages are both not very good, but as we’ve learned, a player’s batting average doesn’t accurately define them as a hitter. A current traditionalist baseball fan would probably argue that both players are having terrible seasons at the plate without even thinking about taking a look at their OBP, SLG, OPS+, wOBA, wRC+, and Statcast metrics. However, if we do begin to look at these other metrics, we would see that both Grandal and Gallo are having well above average seasons at the plate.

    In 2015, Statcast metrics such as average exit velocity, barrel percentage, hard hit percentage, expected Batting Average, expected Slugging Percentage, and expected weighted On Base Average became publically available. With the addition of Statcast metrics and data, Major League Baseball’s shift towards advanced stats and sabermetrics has only increased. Using Statcast data has given people a better idea of the quality of contact hitters have at the plate. One metric to evaluate a hitter’s quality of contact is xwOBA. The better a hitter’s quality of contact is, the better their results usually are. As seen in the graph below, there is a strong correlation between a hitter’s xwOBA and wOBA.

    2021 xwOBA vs wOBA (minimum 250 plate appearances). Data is before games played on 9/3/21

    One outlier on this graph is Nicky Lopez.

    Although Lopez’s very low xwOBA (.284) indicates he is making some of the worst contact at the plate in all of Major League Baseball this season, he has still managed to have average to above-average results as seen by his wOBA (.322). This year’s league average xwOBA is .312 and wOBA is .314.

    In addition to his 10th percentile xwOBA, Lopez’s other offensive Statcast metrics are also well below average. Lopez’s 0.9 barrel% is in the first percentile, .235 xBA is in the 29th percentile, .302 xSLG is in the second percentile, 86.9 mph average exit velosity is in the 12th percentile, and 27.4% hard hit% is in the third percentile. Additionally, despite power now being the name of the game, Lopez has hit only one home run so far this year.

    Across 122 games played in 2021, Lopez is hitting .289/.362/.361 which is good for a 102 wRC+. This is very impressive considering Lopez had really struggled at the plate in his first Major League action in 2019 and 2020. Across 159 games in those two seasons, Lopez hit .228/.279/.307 which comes out to an extremely below average 55 wRC+. One of the biggest differences for Lopez between 2021 and 2019-2020 is his Batting Average On Balls In Play. Even though his offensive Statcast stats have slightly improved in 2021, they are still pretty similar to what they were from 2019-2020. Despite this, Lopez’s 2021 BABIP jas jumped to .340 which is significantly higher than his .269 BABIP from 2019-2020. This shows that there could definitely be some more luck behind Lopez’s season at the plate, but nonetheless, he’s been performing much better than anybody originally expected him to.

    Even though the Royals thought Adalberto Mondesi would be their best option at shortstop, at least until Bobby Witt Jr. was ready to be called up, Nicky Lopez has taken over the position. Mondesi has only played in 10 games this season (thanks to three trips to the Injured List) and Lopez has made the best of his opportunity as the team’s everyday shortstop. As a shortstop, Lopez has been great defensively accumulating 4 DRS, a 5.2 UZR, and 14 OAA. Including his 1 OAA as a second basemen, Nicky Lopez’s 15 OAA is the fourth most in all of Major League Baseball this season behind only Nick Ahmed (19), Francisco Lindor (17), and Matt Chapman (16). As a result of Lopez’s stellar defense at shortstop and Whit Merrfifield’s stellar defense at second base, the Royals will move Mondesi to third base instead of shifting Lopez back to second base and Merrifield into the outfield. On the decision to move Mondesi to third base, Royals General Manager Dayton Moore said “What Whit and Nicky have been able to do, you’ve got to respect the consistency and what they’ve been able to accomplish. We want them to finish strong at those positions, and they’ve earned it.”

    In addition to being an elite defender at a premium position, Nicky Lopez has been one of the best base runners in Major League Baseball this season. Despite some teams being less aggressive on the bases to maximize their opportunities at the plate, the Royals have remained aggressive. The Royals have stolen the most bases (99), have been caught stealing the fourth most (25), and have the second highest BsR (8.8) in all of Major League Baseball so far this season. As the Royals have been one of the best base running teams, Nicky Lopez has been one of the best base running players. Lopez has stolen 18 bases so far this season, good for the 12th most among all qualified Major League players this season. Although Lopez isn’t inside the top 10 of the stolen base leaderboard, he has the second best BsR (8.2) only behind Starling Marte (10.4). BsR accounts for stolen bases, but it also counts for caught stealing and provides information about base running that occurs while the ball is in play. Click here if you’re interested in learning more about BsR.

    Although it is not a perfect stat by any means, Wins Above Replacement gives an indication of how valuable a player is. According to FanGraphs’ version of WAR, Lopez has been the 35th best player in all of Major League Baseball this season. Lopez’s 3.5 fWAR is identical to Joey Gallo’s. Despite being completely different offensive players, Lopez and Gallo have been able to produce at a very similar level.

    Despite being pretty much the polar opposite offensive player of what most teams look for nowadays, Lopez has been able to produce at an about leave average level. If he can continue to hover around league average offensively while remaining elite on the bases and in the field, Lopez will continue to be one of Major League Baseball’s most valuable and fascinating players.

    All stats used in this post were before games played on 9/3/21


    I am a freshman studying magazine, news and digital journalism at the Syracuse University Newhouse School of Public Communications

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    Justin Girshon
    I am a freshman studying magazine, news and digital journalism at the Syracuse University Newhouse School of Public Communications


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