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2023 Braves Season in Review: Nicky Lopez

Atlanta added Nicky Lopez at the Trade Deadline to help fortify the bench and the team’s defensive ability.

MLB: NLDS-Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Nicky Lopez has carved out a solid career for himself as a an elite defensive player all over the diamond. He helped the Braves shore up their defense and their bench after being acquired at the 2023 Trade Deadline.

How Acquired

Lopez was drafted in the fifth round of the 2016 MLB draft by the Kansas City Royals and, up until 2023, had spent his entire career with that organization. But as happens with players who get past three years of service time, he was getting more and more expensive via the arbitration process (thanks to a giant platform year), and Kansas City isn’t exactly known for their willingness to spend. In their defense, it’s tough to properly value Lopez as, for most of his career, he hasn't been able to hit at even a league average rate. But his defense all over the field is elite. Ultimately they decided to move on during the lost 2023 season.

On July 30th, the Braves and the Royals completed a trade that sent Lopez to Atlanta in exchange for left-handed hurler Taylor Hearn, whom Atlanta had acquired on waivers earlier. The Royals could’ve simply claimed Hearn at the time but didn’t; as a result, this trade was more in the vein of doing Lopez a solid than anything else. Lopez was immediately added to the Braves’ active roster in a bench role.

What were the expectations?

Again, Lopez’s career has been a bit of an enigma. He was well-regarded prospect in the Royals system and hit well for pretty much all of his minor league career. But through almost 2,000 plate appearances in the majors, Lopez supports a career 73 wRC+ and has been around five wins below average defensively, even though he runs the bases well. And then, there’s the completely random 2021 season, where Lopez actually hit in the majors at a 104 wRC+ clip, though that was propped up by a .347 BABIP and a wOBA that was .050 higher than his xwOBA.

Offense aside, the defense was elite every step along the way and over multiple positions. While he never quite lived up the prospect hype, Lopez had turned himself into a Swiss army knife of defensive versatility and skillsets.

So, that was what the Braves expected to get when they traded for him: someone who could go on little offensive runs of production but overall, was going to be an elite glove that could play all over the diamond. A solid bench piece, in other words.

When acquired, Lopez had compiled 0.6 fWAR in 190 PAs for the Royals over the course of the year (a 1.9/600 PA pace) despite once again not hitting a lick (71 wRC+). His projects had him as something like a league-average regular on a rate basis, but not one that would ever play full time because of the offensive limitations.

2023 Results

The expectation for the most part, met the results. Lopez stunned everyone when he went for four hits and a homer in his very first start with the Braves against the Mets on August 12 while filling in for Orlando Arcia at short. Two days later, he got his next start against the Yankees, this time at second base, and got three more hits. In his first 10 plate appearances with Atlanta, Lopez had 7 hits and people were wondering exactly what was happening. But after that point, Lopez went a much more Lopez-like 11-for-62 in a Braves uniform and posted a 42 wRC+. In aggregate, those first 10 PAs pushed his Braves line to a 91 wRC+.

The defense, though, was spectacular, routinely making highlights all over the diamond. Lopez spent most of his time in the field at second and short, but he did get starts at third and first at different points, and while it never came up, I’m sure he had outfield glove ready to go if ever needed. While extrapolating small-sample defensive rates is risky, Lopez played with the Braves like a well-above-average shortstop; for the season, he was once again a deity-tier defender.

Over his eight weeks as a Brave, Lopez accumulated 0.5 fWAR, which is a silly 4.1/600 pace. It’s hard to see a trade for a backup infielder going any better without a major injury striking.

What went right?

This section could be nothing but defensive highlights and for a large part, that is what it’s going to be, because that’s what went right for Lopez. His defense was incredible.

Whether ranging to his left or right, from second base or shortstop, Lopez was always on balance, and always made strong accurate throws. He’s just a tremendous glove man.

And though the offensive output wasn't large, Lopez did come up with some big hits. His first at-bat for the Braves was an RBI double against the Mets:

And he helped the Braves sweep the Yankees out of Truist Park:

Strong up the middle defense and a few timely hits is all the Braves could’ve asked for given how little they gave up to get him, and he provided that.

One thing that was of minor interest was whether the Braves could get their mashy-bashy approach to rub off on Lopez’ slap-hitting style. The answer was... sorta?

Lopez improved his xwOBA to .300 with the Braves, compared to .283 earlier in the season with the Royals. He gained nearly 3 mph of average exit velocity, nearly doubled his hard-hit rate to something approaching league average, and actually had a few barrels (he had zero with the Royals in 2023). He ended up swinging way more without a change in contact, so it wasn’t the sort of turnaround to de-emphasize contact and trade it for power like you’d expect, but if nothing else, you could say he was at least swinging harder?

What went wrong?

Lopez just struggles to hit on any consistent level. He’s very much an all-arms swinger of the bat, choosing to make consistent contact over adding any power to his game and it shows. While he sports an impressive 15 percent career strikeout rate, he also has career slugging percentage of just of .319. His career slugging percentage is lower than the average major leaguer’s OBP. He also supports one of the weaker average exit velocities in baseball, again, because he focuses more on contact. The Braves did kinda-sorta help the exit velocity with Lopez, but the gains were fairly modest and he didn’t start hitting well, not that anyone should’ve expected him to.

Still, the Braves were the perfect team for Lopez, as they have specialized in getting more power out of guys. But, Lopez posted just a .369 slugging over his tenure in Atlanta. To be fair to him, he saw very little playing time and long stretches between at-bats, so maybe he could’ve done more with more consistent time on the field. It would’ve been fun to see in a vacuum, whether the Braves could’ve changed his approach to pay greater dividends than his .300 xwOBA in Atlanta, but that would also entail him starting way more than he did, and no one showed any interest in going in that direction.

But, the bat is going to continue to be what holds Lopez back from his full potential. He almost certainly needs to sacrifice some of that contact in order to do more damage. Avoiding strikeouts is great but not if comes at the cost of every ounce of your power.

Because he was used so sparingly, Lopez didn’t really have any bad games in Atlanta that mattered. Perhaps his worst game as a Brave was on September 29, in a meaningless contest against the Nationals, where he: hit into a fielder’s choice in the second, struck out to end the third with men on the corners and a two-run lead, had a single in the midst of a four-run rally in the fifth, grounded out to the catcher to end the sixth with the tying run on third, booted a ball in the seventh that led to a run, and lastly grounded out to second with two on and down by four in the eighth. That’s a lot of words but it had little relevance to the Braves’ season.

Amusingly, Lopez’ lowest-WPA play for the Braves came in a similarly-meaningless game, on October 1, where he flew out against Kyle Finnegan to start the ninth while down by two runs.

2024 Outlook

Lopez is arbitration-eligible in 2024 and projected for a salary of about $4 million. There was uncertainty about whether the Braves would be willing to spend that much on a backup when the starting shortstop, Arcia, only makes half that. We got our answer over the weekend:

The Braves traded Lopez, along with Michael Soroka, Jared Shuster, and Braden Shewmake to the White Sox for reliever Aaron Bummer. For Lopez, this is an opportunity to play much more consistently as the White Sox are in the middle of a full-blown teardown. They’ll be one of the worst teams in baseball next year, which means he should get plenty of playing time in their infield. He also grew up in Naperville, Illinois, and will be playing for the team he cheered for as a kid, which is pretty cool.

Being a bench player in Atlanta is tough because of how often the starters play and for Lopez, it’s hard to argue he’s not moving to a better situation in 2024 as he continues to try and find more consistency with the bat.

He’s projected by Steamer to provide half a win in 350ish PAs; however, Steamer heavily regresses everyone’s defense, and he’d probably be an average-to-above regular over a full season just based on his defense... if any team could stand the 75ish wRC+ getting that many PAs over the course of a season.

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