How Real Is Nicky Lopez’s Batting Line?

When Nicky Lopez steps to the plate, there is no in-between to his game. Of the 315 players who have seen at least 1,000 pitches over the past two seasons, Lopez places 27th in swinging strike rate (7.5%), in the top third in chase rate (24.7%), and in the top quarter in terms of the percentage of pitches put into play (18.8%) (all stats are through games on August 10). He combines elite plate discipline with an uncanny knack for making contact, an unusual mix of skills in the majors today. Players tend to make a trade-off when choosing to be more selective by accepting that they will put fewer balls in play. Balls in play have about a 178-point wOBA advantage over plate appearances that end in a walk or strikeout. But balls in play on pitches outside of the strike zone only enjoy a 97-point advantage over the combination of walks and strikeouts, a much less enticing proposition. Thus, by avoiding swinging at pitches outside the zone, hitters maximize their chances of putting a high-value batted ball into play, but also lengthen the plate appearance and increase the chance they strikeout. Lopez does not make this tradeoff, as you can see below:

I referenced Lopez’s minuscule 7.5% swinging strike rate; as a percentage of the total number of pitches he has seen, he rarely swings and comes up empty. He either makes contact or doesn’t swing at all. And the rate at which he swings at pitches overall is another indication of his selectivity. Over the last two seasons (2020-21), he’s swung at just 44.2% of the pitches he has seen, 2.9 percentage points less than the rest of the league over that sample.

Selectivity is great if you make it count when you do swing and put the ball in play on those pitches more towards the heart of the zone. Lopez’s problem, especially in his 2019 debut and last season, is that he often hasn’t reaped the benefits of his patience. This is the other side of his game. He has posted barrel rates in the second, fourth, and first percentiles and hard-hit rates in the second and sixth percentiles in his three seasons in the big leagues. He has also yielded zone run values per 100 pitches of -4.44, -5.17, and -3.02 in those seasons, compared to 1.86, 2.30, and 2.97 on pitches out of the zone, a product of his excellent approach but lack of punch when pitchers challenge him (average is 2.10 for out of zone and -2.21 for in zone). His career wOBAcon on the balls he puts in play inside the strike zone is just .302, 101 points lower than the league over that span. Through 937 major league plate appearances, he has hit three home runs, none of which have come in 2021. His extreme lack of pop has manifested itself in a 56 and 55 wRC+ in 2019 and ’20, respectively, the latter of which was also a product of his in-zone contact rate cratering to 82.4%. That placed him in the 51st percentile in 2020, not nearly high enough to offset the types of balls he puts into play.

This year has seen a marked improvement in Lopez’s top-level results. His strikeout rate has returned to a level close to that of his debut and minor-league numbers (with the help of an in-zone contact rate about 10% better than league-wide figure), while his walk rate is still at a healthy 9.3%, solidifying the gains he made last year without the corresponding loss of contact. This has enabled him to reach base at a 34.8% clip, the primary factor in his near league-average batting line (96 wRC+). Given his high-end defense (he has 21 career Outs Above Average per Baseball Savant, including 14 just this season), average performance at the plate would make Lopez a good regular who can slot in at either spot in the middle infield. But his extreme approach and batted-ball quality, coupled with his disastrous first 594 plate appearances, do make you wonder: can he be anything close to an average bat going forward? The best way to evaluate the future is to examine the past. Using qualified player seasons in the Statcast era (I left out 2020 due to its brevity), I investigated the feasibility of Lopez’s skills carrying him as a fringe-average bat.

Taking a high-level view of the quality of his approach (his walk and strikeout rates), Lopez fairs well. From 2015-19, there were 20 qualified player seasons in which the player posted walk and strikeout rates within 10% of Lopez’s 2021 season in either direction:

Nicky Lopez K% and BB% Comparables
Name Season PA K% BB% ISO SLG wRC+
Jose Altuve 2017 662 12.7 8.8 .202 .547 160
Manny Machado 2018 709 14.7 9.9 .241 .538 141
Anthony Rendon 2018 597 13.7 9.2 .227 .535 140
Daniel Murphy 2017 593 13.0 8.8 .221 .543 135
Jose Altuve 2018 599 13.2 9.2 .135 .451 135
Francisco Lindor 2018 745 14.4 9.4 .242 .519 132
Nolan Arenado 2019 662 14.0 9.4 .269 .583 129
Nolan Arenado 2016 696 14.8 9.8 .275 .570 126
Prince Fielder 2015 693 12.7 9.2 .158 .463 125
Jason Heyward 2015 610 14.8 9.2 .146 .439 121
Jurickson Profar 2018 594 14.8 9.1 .204 .458 107
Jose Ramirez 2019 542 13.7 9.6 .224 .479 105
Ketel Marte 2018 580 13.6 9.3 .177 .437 105
Jose Reyes 2017 561 14.1 8.9 .168 .413 95
DJ LeMahieu 2017 682 13.2 8.7 .099 .409 94
Ian Kinsler 2017 613 14.0 9.0 .176 .412 92
Jacoby Ellsbury 2016 626 13.4 8.6 .111 .374 90
Jurickson Profar 2019 518 14.5 9.3 .192 .410 90
Jordy Mercer 2016 584 14.2 8.7 .118 .374 88
Yonder Alonso 2016 532 13.9 8.5 .114 .367 87

This is a list of very good hitters; the average wRC+ of the players in this cohort (weighted by their number of plate appearances) is a strong 116. Think Kyle Schwarber, Trey Mancini, and Adrian Beltre in this time frame. Of course, using just walk and strikeout rates doesn’t paint the whole picture. This collection of hitters posted slugging and isolated slugging percentages of .470 and .187, respectively, compared to .350 and .073 for Lopez this year. So they put the ball in play at similar rates as Lopez but with much more authority. As such, the entirety of this 20-hitter sample is not that indicative of Lopez’s potential sustainability. The players here with seasons with a wRC+ below 100 would be a more useful comparison set, though their collective .394 slugging and .138 ISO still pace Lopez’s performance. Here is how these players performed the following season, assuming they qualified:

Nicky Lopez K% and BB% Comparables the Following Season
Name Season PA K% BB% ISO SLG wRC+
DJ LeMahieu 2018 581 14.1 6.4 .152 .428 87
Ian Kinsler 2018 534 12.0 7.5 .140 .380 86
Jordy Mercer 2017 558 15.8 9.1 .151 .406 88
Yonder Alonso 2017 521 22.6 13.1 .235 .501 133

Collectively, this group posted a 98 wRC+ with a .428 SLG and .169 ISO, but this is clearly skewed by almost a quarter of those plate appearances coming from Yonder Alonso and his swing-change-led 2017 career season. Pull Alonso out and the collective wRC+ drops to 87. This looks eminently more reasonable, given that LeMahieu (2018), Kinsler (’18), and Mercer (’17) combined for swing, hard-hit, and barrel rates of 43.2%, 25.6%, and 4.2%, respectively, rates that aren’t that far off Lopez’s percentages of 43.8%, 28.6%, and 1.1% this season. I will note that of these metrics, barrel rate is most closely correlated with wRC+ and Lopez’s 1.1% rate is 71.5% less than the collective barrel rate of those three players in those three seasons. Expecting even an 87 wRC+ from Lopez might be optimistic. I filtered the player seasons I described above by those with barrel rates between 1-2%, right around where Lopez sits. Those hitters produced a slugging percentage of .364 (14 points above Lopez), an ISO of .094 (21 points above) and an 84 wRC+. Given the similar power outputs, this seems like a reasonable estimation of what to expect from Lopez as his major league career progresses.

Part of Lopez’s success is a result of his career-high BABIP, which currently resides at .328 after just a .269 mark in 2019-20. His plus sprint speed (77th percentile in 2021) will help prop up this value more than his batted ball quality would indicate, but I would still expect some regression in this department going forward (as do our Depth Charts projections, pegging him for .297 the rest of the way). Clearly, he is hitting over of his skis thus far, but the types of players who have been comparable to him in the past have been much better than the 55 wRC+ Lopez displayed in 2019-20. An 84 wRC+ would not make Lopez a viable regular, even with elite defense at shortstop or second, but it would make him an extremely useful bench piece going forward. And ZiPS seems to agree; his wRC+ projections over the next three years are 86, 87, and 88 with 0.5 WAR in each season (with anticipated plate appearances between 460-490 a season). Definitely not someone who should be in the lineup and get a full slate of plate appearances, but a versatile piece that can make a good team whole. With little in the way of draft pedigree (he was picked 163rd overall) and a disastrous start to his major league career, that kind of outcome is a positive development for Lopez and should allow him to carve out a productive niche in the professional baseball landscape.

Carmen is a part-time contributor to FanGraphs. An engineer by education and trade, he spends too much of his free time thinking about baseball.

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1 year ago

Being selective is exactly the right thing for guys like him. For pitchers CSW% is a pretty predictive Stat, I. E pitchers with a lot of called and swinging strikes do very well and strike out lots of guys.

With hitters CSW% is also predictive on the high end (ie high CSW guys are extremely risky and high swinging strike guys can’t afford high called strike rates however hitters do also better on pitches over the “heart” of the plate and guys that have very little power anyway thus shouldn’t swing at edge pitches and make their always soft contact even softer.

David fletcher does that well too, he can wait for a pitch down the pipe because he is not Going to whiff with two strikes anyway so he can take strike two on a borderline pitch while a high sw Str guy usually will strike out if he takes strike 3.

Still of course his max EV, hard hit and barrel rate are all at the bottom and will limit his upside. Of he could just add 2-3 mph of max EV he could hit 12-15 homers and be a very different hitter but at age 26 I’m not sure there is that much strength to add and maybe he is what he is.

A simple swing change like turner or Murphy won’t do the job here unfortunately because those guys already hit the ball Hard, just everything straight down so They just needed to change their swing angle but Lopez also hits the ball super soft so he has a bigger task to increase his power than just hitting the ball higher in the air.

1 year ago
Reply to  Dominikk85

You’re right about the swing change route. If anything he needs to (1) work towards an elite contact rate like Fletcher (2) work on hitting the ball well the opposite way, which pays max dividends for an LHB with speed and (3) work on becoming a bit physically stronger, not to get HRs, but to penalize OFs from playing him too shallow (his home park is a nice place to get 2Bs and 3Bs if you can put liners 340-360 feet into the gaps).