He’s succeeding at the plate for the first time in his career
There are many ways to create value for a baseball team as a player. You can do it with your bat, and you can also do that on the field and on the basepaths. Furthermore, there are different ways you can create value within those categories—you can hit a home run or a single, you can throw a baserunner out at the plate or make a diving catch, and you can get a hustle double or a stolen base.
However, not all ways of creating value are equal. Not only do those values have different magnitudes, but they have different frequencies at which they occur. If a player starts a game, they’re guaranteed to get three or four plate appearances. They are not guaranteed to get any balls hit to them on defense, nor are they guaranteed to get on base and get a chance to showcase baserunning skills.
This fact of life for baseball players puts Nicky Lopez into a bind. Lopez’s skills are undeniable. He is a Gold Glove caliber defender at second base who can handle shortstop in a pinch. He is a fast smart baserunner, and though he’s not a good base stealer, stolen bases are less important than they have ever been. He’s an impeccable bunter, he has fantastic contact ability, and he has excellent pitch recognition.
Unfortunately for Lopez, he has a very, very large Achilles’ heel: he just doesn’t hit the ball hard. To quote my own article from last September:
Lopez’s pathway to success in the big leagues is narrow. With so little power, he must either become the disciplined, contact-heavy hitter he was in the minors, or he must revamp his approach and swing to access what power he’s got like he never has shown to be able to as a professional baseball player. In other words, he must be a completely different player than he has been at the plate so far in his career.
If you want a more visceral reason why being able to generate exit velocity is important, take a look at this truly insane swing from Giancarlo Stanton. It’s a bad pitch down the middle, but Stanton is late and taking a defensive swing because he’s down in the count 0-2; if he were ahead, he probably pulls that to the moon. Nevertheless, he barrels the ball anyway, and goes nearly 400 feet from 112 MPH off the bat.
Stanton stands at the extreme end of this particular spectrum, a spectrum of which Lopez occupies the exact opposite end. Obviously, Stanton is not an aspirational figure for Lopez. Rather, Stanton is the biggest example for what power can do. In 2016, Stanton had a down year, striking out 30% of the time and only hitting .240. And yet, he still put up a wRC+ of 118.
At the extreme low end of any offensive stat, you’re going to find poor hitters. But there are still hitters who have produced with low power figures. Since 2017, there are 387 hitters with at least 600 plate appearances. Of those, 10 had a wRC+ of at least 90, but an ISO under .120. It is these hitters that Lopez is looking to emulate.
The problem, as you can see with those numbers, is twofold. First, the total value that those hitters provide just isn’t very much. Only one player was worth more than 2.1 Wins Above Replacement per 150 games; no matter how much of a defensive wizard you are, if you can’t hit for power, you just aren’t going to produce much value.
The other problem is that these players are, on aggregate, doing very good things everywhere else. They’re high-average, high-walk, low-strikeout hitters that maintain a very good BABIP (batting average on balls in play).
As for Lopez, well, he’s doing it. Through Sunday’s game, take a look at Lopez’s figures and the league percentile in which they reside among the 216 players in the league with 40 or more PA this year:
*Contact% is total percentage of contact made against all pitches swung at; SwStr% is total swings and misses against all pitches thrown; CSW% is total percent of all swinging strikes and called strikes against all pitches thrown
These numbers tell a story: Lopez is elite at making contact, and he’s elite at pitch recognition. And in order to succeed at the plate with little power, you need to be elite at both.
But therein lies the rub. Lopez has been productive so far at the plate, and he’s played a decent shortstop along the way. Considering he’s also an excellent second baseman, and could very easily handle third base too, he’s liable to make a career for himself as a utility infielder a la Willie Bloomquist for a long time. However, Lopez’s ability to succeed at the big league level and provide value depends on his ability to be elite—not simply very good—at some of the most difficult and elusive skills in professional sports.
In other words, Lopez is threading the needle right now. It’s fun to watch, but it is also a constant reminder of how close Lopez will always be to the ledge, and a constant reminder that he’ll never be the type of game changing player teams build around. But even the 2014-2015 World Series teams had important role players, and Lopez can definitely be that on the next great Royals team—if they get here sooner rather than later.