Imagine the prototypical Major League hitter in 2021.
This guy probably embraces the “slug is in the air” ethos of the Launch Angle Era, mashes plenty of high-exit-velo homers and considers strikeouts the cost of doing business. You can probably visualize him pulling the ball into a shift -- especially if he swings left-handed -- but not playing much “small ball.”
And now for someone completely different: the Royals’ Nicky Lopez.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound, 26-year-old infielder is about as un-2021 as it gets. In fact, watching Lopez is a little bit like taking a time machine back to the 1980s, minus the fuzzy video quality and artificially turfed, multi-purpose stadiums.
And the key is: It's working for him. That’s certainly no knock on the more representative modern players out there, but variety is the spice of life, right? After posting a mere .586 OPS (55 wRC+) and -0.4 FanGraphs WAR over 159 big leagues games from 2019-20, Lopez has broken out in 2021. While his 93 wRC+ is still under league average (100), his 2.3 fWAR -- with a significant defensive boost -- is tied with Whit Merrifield for the Royals lead, even though he ranks seventh on the team in plate appearances.
Here is a look at how Lopez profiles like a player straight out of a different era. (Stats are through Wednesday’s action).
Zero home runs? Zero problem
Lopez has come to the plate 347 times this season without ever circling the bases. That alone is shocking in this era. No other player in 2021 has even 200 plate appearances without a single home run, and Lopez soon could reach even rarer air. No player has finished a homerless season with 400-plus plate appearances since Michael Bourn in 2015 and nobody has done it in 500-plus PA since Ben Revere in 2012.
According to FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski, if Lopez doesn’t go deep over the final seven weeks of the season, he’s in position to become the first hitter to crack the 3-fWAR mark despite zero homers in nearly 30 years. In 1993, White Sox center fielder Lance Johnson had a no-homer, 4.7-fWAR campaign.
Lopez certainly has the ability to drive a ball out of the yard, albeit not frequently. He homered 20 times in the Minors and three times in the Majors from 2019-20, and playing in Kauffman Stadium (one of MLB’s most homer-suppressing parks) hurts his case. Lopez has smacked six batted balls this year that would have gone out in one or more MLB ballparks, per Statcast, including two (this one and this one) that would have been homers in 14 of the 30 venues.
So Lopez is capable of snapping his roundtripper drought, but he also gives himself few opportunities.
On the ground, spray it around
If you’re hitting for power, two of the best things you can do are lift the ball in the air and pull it. Lopez, who bats lefty, does those things about as infrequently as any of the 181 batters who have put at least 200 balls in play this season.
• 55.8% ground-ball rate, tied for fifth-highest
• 22.3% pull rate, second lowest
Only 14 of Lopez’s 265 batted balls have been pulled line drives or fly balls, which doesn’t create a whole lot of potential homers.
Lots of (soft) contact
Lopez’s percentile rankings tell the story here.
He rarely swings and misses and rarely strikes out. But the contact he does make is some of the weakest in the game, rarely topping the 95 mph hard-hit threshold. Combine that with his strong chase rate, and you get an OBP (.344) just a point lower than his slugging (.345). That gives Lopez a shot to be the first hitter to post an OBP higher than his SLG in 500-plus plate appearances since Jamey Carroll in 2012, although Cleveland’s Myles Straw, Minnesota’s Andrelton Simmons and Washington’s Victor Robles are in that hunt as well.
While Lopez has a zero in the homer column, his output is far more robust in some categories that are a bit forgotten in today’s game.
Lopez is one of only nine players this season with at least five triples. Meanwhile, MLB as a whole is on pace for only 641 triples, which would be the lowest total in any 162-game season in history.
Lopez’s 12 sac bunt attempts and seven sac bunts -- including a beautifully executed squeeze Tuesday against the Yankees -- both rank first among MLB position players. That’s more attempts and successes than two entire teams have in 2021: the Red Sox (seven, four) and Rays (eight, five).
So what now?
It’s fun when players find different paths to success and different ways to produce, but we should be careful not to overstate the case. The style of play that’s in vogue is in vogue for a reason: It gets results. And while Lopez has been a solid player this year, that’s as much about elite defense at a premium position (plus-14 Outs Above Average) and excellent baserunning (10-for-10 in steal attempts) as it is any offensive prowess.
But Lopez’s 2021 breakout also is a reminder that baseball is not a one-size-fits-all game and a style of play that works for the majority won’t fit every individual. Coming off a tough 2020, Lopez focused this past offseason on simplifying his swing and being more direct to the ball, instead of going for power. Granted a reprieve from starting the season in Triple-A due to an injury to shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, he had one mission: “Be the best Nicky Lopez I can be.”
That’s exactly what he’s done, and the result has been one of the most un-2021 seasons of 2021.