The Nicky Lopez era with the Kansas City Royals has brought its fair share of highs and lows. In 2019 and 2020, the formerly dependable hitter struggled immensely in a combined 159-game sample size to the tune of a .228 batting average, .279 OBP and 55 wRC+. By all accounts, he was far from an everyday player and his total -0.3 fWAR showed for it.
Then 2021 happened.
Last season, Lopez was a man possessed. Across 151 games, Lopez posted a .300/.365/.378 line while driving in 43 runs, swiping 22 bags and playing some terrific defense in the infield. Lopez's 105 wRC+, combined with his speed and defense, made him an extremely valuable player for Kansas City. Per FanGraphs, his 5.9 fWAR was worth a staggering $47.3 million. Simply being a slightly above-average hitter was enough to completely transform his profile and turn him into a player who was objectively good.
Now, in 2022, Lopez is back to struggling. His 65 wRC+ is better than his 2019 and 2020 figures, although he's still been a very clear negative at the plate this season. His "power" is at an all-time low, his BABIP has dropped back down after spiking last year and he's walking less often than he has since his rookie season. His defense and baserunning, while still being net positive traits, haven't been as good as they were a year ago. Conversations with multiple sources have indicated that Lopez has been playing through nagging minor injuries this season, but that doesn't come close to explaining his full-scale regression. What's changed?
For starters, let's get back to that BABIP. After posting figures of .273 and .260 in 2019 and 2020, Lopez's 2021 BABIP was a scorching .347. That sharp increase indicates plenty of luck coming into play, and 2022's decline back down to .284 reinforces that. Additionally, the aforementioned drop in walk rate also plays a role. When adding in more infield fly balls (5.2% to 10.4%), more swings (44.4% to 48.6%) but less contact (86.3% to 83.9%) and less hard contact (25.1% to 22.9%), it all adds up.
The cherry on top — or the final nail in the coffin — is that Lopez isn't having remotely close to the same success against fastballs or changeups. His runs above average against those pitches have declined from 5.5 to -2.5 and 0.2 to -4.8, respectively. All of this data, including big changes and small differences alike, helps explain why someone who ran into a great deal of luck for one heck of a hot stretch last year has been unable to replicate that success now.
With all of that in mind, there is a silver lining that comes with Lopez's struggles: Kansas City no longer has to wonder whether he's an everyday player moving forward. Roughly a quarter of his big-league games have been worthy of that title and for a player who will be 28 years old by the time the 2023 campaign begins, there isn't much left to learn about him.
Lopez very well could post slightly better numbers next year and if the Royals were absolutely loaded at every other spot in the lineup, including Lopez in the lineup on a regular basis wouldn't be the end of the world. They aren't, though, and Lopez's value with the bat has gone from passable to a problem. There will be no Nicky Lopez renaissance in 2022, and that's okay. There's still a spot for him on the club moving forward, but he doesn't appear to be a routine starter if Kansas City is serious about winning plenty of games moving forward.