You already know who this article is about, but humor me here. Let's say this year, the Kansas City Royals fielded the following player who — among qualified big-league hitters — ranked in the:
- First percentile in barrel rate.
- 2nd percentile in xSLG.
- 4th percentile in HardHit%.
- 6th percentile in xwOBA.
- 12th percentile in average exit velocity.
- All of this, accompanied by an ISO of .078 and just two home runs on the year.
Is the player described above a starting-caliber major league shortstop in 2021? Based on the aforementioned data, absolutely not. Now, let's add in a little bit of context to paint a much clearer picture.
- Led baseball in both Runs Prevented and Outs Above Average.
- Placed in the top 7% of the league in whiff rate and strikeout rate.
- Stole 22 bases in 23 attempts.
- Had 12 sacrifice hits.
- Had a team-high .300 batting average.
- Posted a .744 OPS and 106 wRC+.
Again, is the player described above a starting-caliber major league shortstop in 2021? Based on the aforementioned data, absolutely. Nicky Lopez is one of the most unique players in all of baseball. He doesn't try to clobber home runs or drive balls into the gaps of the spacious Kauffman Stadium for extra-base hits. He doesn't swing for the fences. He wins by playing his brand of baseball, and it's one that turned into a winning formula this season right in front of the Royals' eyes.
That wasn't always going to be the case, though. After a rough spring training stint, Lopez was demoted to Triple-A Omaha. Rather than hanging his head and feeling sorry for himself, he used that demotion as an opportunity to rework his swing and train with coaches to get it closer to what his 2018 form was. When he was quickly recalled and started for the MLB club on Opening Day, he was ready. Lopez shined from the start relative to his prior struggles, but the stride he hit mid-season launched him into temporary stardom.
From June 3 until the end of the season, Lopez posted a .334/.387/.413 line (good for an .801 OPS) while striking out just 49 times in 93 games. For over half a season, he was one of the best players in all of baseball. Perhaps the lone silver lining of the Adalberto Mondesi situation, a tragic story of a talented player who simply hasn't been able to stay on the field consistently, was the emergence of Lopez. He's cemented himself as a full-time player moving forward.
Is Lopez a perfect player? Of course not. Does his .347 BABIP open the door for some regression next season? It sure does. With that said, he's more than earned the chance to hold down a starting role in the infield and be valued as a building block for the Royals organization moving forward.
There are multiple factors that could push Lopez off of shortstop and back to second base. Among them are the imminent call-up of phenom shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., as well as the part-time return of Mondesi and even Whit Merrifield's excellent defensive campaign at second. The Royals have a bit of a logjam they'll need to sort out between now and when they officially aim to contend, and Lopez is a major cog in that eventual machine.
On one hand, Lopez wasn't even supposed to be at shortstop this season. On the other, he filled in admirably, resurrected his career and may win a Gold Glove at the position for his efforts in 2021. The Royals have some tough decisions to make this offseason, but deciding whether Lopez belongs in the lineup every day is an easy choice. He proved it for months on end in a season that didn't feature a ton of other positives for the franchise. Lopez's future is bright, no matter how you slice it. He's here to stay.