At the close of the 2021 season Nicky Lopez had surpassed all expectations of what he could be as a pro player, and expectations weren’t exactly low to begin with. I spent the beginning of the 2019 minor league season screaming from the virtual rooftops about Nicky’s production with Omaha. In 31 games at AAA that season he slashed .353/.457/.500 and left many of us asking that age-old question the followers of this organization seemingly find themselves asking with every prospect: “What the hey are they waiting for?”
After a mid-May call up, Nicky spent the rest of 2019 with the big league club, playing in 103 games and really grinding for a .601 OPS. In 2020 he regressed hard, but it was easy to take everything from that “season” with a grain of salt and start anew in 2021.
Fast forward to June 12, 2021, and reality seemed to be sinking in. Nicky was an everyday player in Kansas City slashing .224/.320/.301. While proving to be a reliable and versatile defensive option up the middle, his offensive production made Alcides Escobar look like Francisco Lindor. At that point we I was beginning to accept the fact that Lopez might fall into that unfortunate category of players that are too good for AAA while not up to snuff for the big leagues. The dreaded AAAA player.
But then something happened. Nicky made an adjustment, likely between the ears, and he turned into a completely different hitter. From June 13th through the end of the season he slashed .334/.387/.414. He not only turned things around but he was clutch, coming up with two-out base hits and late inning heroics. He was a true “keep the line moving” guy. He was relocated from batting ninth to the two-hole and became a nice 1-2 punch behind Merrifield at the top of the lineup; helping Kansas City go 36-34 after the All Star break.
Nicky wrapped up 2021 batting an even .300 while generating an astounding 6.0 fWar. He was all but robbed of a Gold Glove at shortstop and the production at the plate we’d seen in the minors was taking shape in The Show. It appeared that Nicky Lopez had finally arrived.
In the midst of his turnaround that season there were multiple articles (and no shortage of coaches and broadcasters) explaining Nicky’s turnaround as a credit of “just being the best Nicky Lopez he can be,” a line that sounds easy and borderline juvenile, but there is certainly something to a player feeling comfortable with who they are and trying to stay within their own ability. Whatever adjustments Nicky made clearly worked for him.
It also doesn’t hurt to have a little luck on your side.
Nicky’s 2021 BABIP was .347, so some regression was expected in ’22, but I don’t think any Royals fans foresaw his start to this season playing out the way it has.
It’s mid-July and Nicky is slashing .240/.293/.287. The BABIP has regressed down to .281 while his 13.5 K% and 5.9 BB% are both moving in the wrong direction. Yet these numbers are actually an improvement from where he was a month ago.
Since June 14th Nicky is slashing .298/.309/.362, a nice turnaround compared to the .210/.285/.249 he posted up to that point. The glaring issue is the decrease in walks. Nicky’s BB% is nearly three points down from where it was a year ago. His bat offers virtually no power so Nicky has to walk to be a productive part of a lineup. His .743 OPS in 2021 was largely propped up by his team leading .365 OBP – the 25th best mark in the majors.
But the mid-June turnaround for Nicky got me thinking…
What do we do with Lopez if he’s still not hitting at season’s end? Where does he fit with the team going forward? And, most importantly, is Nicky engrossed in one of those weird baseball coincidences we see from time to time?
In the past month he has started seeing time at third base, making him a bona fide defensive Swiss Army Knife on the infield. He’s not a realistic long term option at third, but as an infield utility option Lopez could be a valuable bench piece – so long as the bat is able to provide something with reduced ABs.
If you’re asking yourself who’s going to play second base in the future, we ended up getting an unexpected look at it in Toronto just before the All Star break. In a weekend series completely overshadowed by national media coverage and lots of strong opinions, it was hard not to just be excited to get a look at so many young players that will be a part of the next good Royals team.
One of the players I was most excited to see over the weekend was second baseman Michael Massey. The 24-year-old didn’t disappoint, going 3-8 in his first 3 big league appearances. Massey has been one of my favorite prospects to follow over the past year. A fourth-round pick out of Illinois in 2019, he projected as a sound defensive player who could hit for average but not a ton of pop. He reminded me of Whit Merrifield in that way.
His 2021 campaign with the Royals High-A affiliate, Quad Cities, destroyed expectations. Massey slashed .289/.351/.531, hitting 27 doubles and 21 HR, good enough for a 135 wRC+. Coming into ’22 it was reasonable to expect some drop-off as he moved up to AA, but Massey’s promotion wasn’t just seamless, so far he’s improving as he’s moving to higher levels. In 54 games with AA Northwest Arkansas he slashed .305/.359/.496. In 24 games with Omaha, he’s posting a 1.038 OPS with 6 HR.
What Massey has been for me over the last year is yet another reason to feel confident in the organization’s hitting development. There are plenty of examples at this point but Massey’s explosion in power production and lightning fast ascension through the minors are, for me, some of the closing arguments on our organization’s hitting development. It’s not something we should be surprised by anymore, it’s what we should expect.
If the organization can get the pitching development on par with the hitting, we’ll be in for some very enjoyable summers in the coming years.