2021 has been one heck of a year for Kansas City Royals shortstop Nicky Lopez. The high points continued on Thursday night.
In yesterday's 6-0 Royals win over the Baltimore Orioles, Lopez recorded three hits, including his second home run in the past month (and of the season). He has seven hits in the last three games, raising his season batting average to .297. By all accounts, he's been fantastic.
Whether it's his American League-leading 14 Outs Above Average or his measly 13.9% strikeout rate, Lopez has dazzled both in the field and at the plate in 2021. It wasn't always going to be that way, though. Coming out of a horrible spring training, the 26-year-old was sent down to Triple-A Omaha to work on some things before being promoted just a few days later. After the series finale in Baltimore, Lopez touched on that process.
"The season, obviously, was heading down a path that I didn't really imagine," Lopez said. "Getting talked to and [they] said 'Hey, we're going to send you down.' But then, it was one of those things where I couldn't feel sorry for myself. I had to quickly turn it into this being a blessing disguise."
And boy, did it turn out to be that blessing in disguise. After hitting .246 in March and April and a paltry .209 in May, Lopez caught fire in the middle of June and hasn't looked back since. In a 71-game stretch from June 13 until now, he's posting a .341/.394/.420 line. Those numbers are extremely similar since the All-Star break.
As a left-handed hitter, finding success against left-handed pitching is oftentimes difficult to achieve. That hasn't been the case for Lopez, though: he boasts a .314 average in 119 plate appearances versus lefties and a .291 average in 350 PAs against righties. He credits a lot of his success this season to being able to succeed in those situations.
"I love playing the game of baseball and I want to play on an everyday basis," Lopez said. "I would hate the fact of not being able to face a lefty kind of hinder me from playing every single day. To be able to get hits consistently off lefty pitching this year and seeing my name in the lineup every single day has been a huge confidence boost to me, and I just look to keep it going and not try to do too much."
There's no denying that Lopez plays a brand of baseball that contrasts how the game is played today. His barrel percentage is in the bottom 1% of the league. His hard-hit rate and expected slugging percentage are in the third and second percentiles, respectively. Lopez wins with a weak-contact approach, terrific plate discipline, plus speed and elite defense. That's a combination for success, even if he doesn't mash home runs. He believes he has room to improve, too.
"I'm still learning — it's not like it clicked for me," Lopez said. "I'm still learning, and I'm going to continue to learn. I'm still young and I'm looking forward to helping this team in the future because this is a very bright future for us, and I'm just happy to be a part of it."
As the Royals attempt to get a clearer picture of who belongs in their lineup next season, Lopez is a definite yes. His name can be written in sharpie. He's a non-traditional player who may not impress everyone, but it's hard to ignore the success he's had since a rough start to 2021. The scariest part? He may be getting even better as time passes.