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A tribute to Nicky Lopez home runs

Nicky nukes are a rare treat

2019 MLB in Omaha: Detroit Tigers v. Kansas City Royals Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images

Home runs are cool. They’re big, they’re loud, and they’re the most efficient way to score runs in this silly little sport. Chicks dig them. Aaron Judge has been the story of baseball this year: the big slugger donning the pinstripes chasing down Roger Maris’s AL home run record in a walk year that will almost certainly end with an MVP award. Pete Alonso was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2019 thanks to a monster 53-homer season, breaking the rookie record set two years prior by Judge. Also happening in 2017: Giancarlo Stanton earned NL MVP honors with his 59 home runs, the most in a season since Barry Bonds ate a balanced breakfast daily in 2001.

But I’m not here to talk about those guys. They get enough attention as it is. As cool as the many-homer seasons are, there is a different genre of dinger that I find more appealing: the unicorns. The rare round-trippers. The guys that you aren’t convinced are physically capable of hitting a baseball over 360 feet catching one just right and putting a charge in it. I love these homers. Pitchers face these guys thinking “It’s not the end of the world if I miss down the middle, it won’t hurt that bad.” Seconds later, they’re watching the ball sail into the outfield seats and contemplating their life choices. “Why did I throw the slider? Maybe I should have stayed as a shortstop. Did I leave the oven on?”

Norichika Aoki played 132 regular season games in his only season with the Royals. He hit exactly one home run that year. Do you remember it? I remember it. An evening in Phoenix. A huge night for a typically anemic Royals offense, with Aoki providing the dagger:

Omar Infante played 298 games, almost two full seasons’ worth, for Kansas City. He hit eight home runs in that stretch. He was also worth -1.1 fWAR. You might say he wasn’t very good, or that the Royals should have moved on sooner. But he accomplished something that Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Eric Hosmer all failed to do in the 2014 World Series:

No wonder Hunter Strickland was so upset, he had just done the baseball equivalent to slipping on a banana peel. He likely contemplated retirement after this, but he hung in there and has achieved an illustrious career as a mediocre journeyman relief pitcher. There are plenty of guys like that out there, but Strickland can say something that the Emilio Pagán’s and Dominic Leone’s of the world cannot: “I gave up a home run to Omar goddamn Infante in the World Series.”

The Royals currently have a player on the roster whose homers almost seem like they happen by accident: Nicholas Lopez. This comes as no surprise. Nicky has finished in the bottom 6% of baseball in hard-hit rate every season of his career. Funny enough, he actually managed a maximum exit velo of 107.9 mph last season. That’s higher than Cody Bellinger, Alex Bregman, and Wil Myers all managed last year. That doesn’t sound right, but I’m serious, just look at that leaderboard. Would you like to see Nicky Lopez hit a ball 107.9 mph? Of course you would:

That’s a little anti-climatic: a line drive single up the middle late in a September blowout between two non-contending teams. The stakes don’t get much lower than that. His hardest hit ball of the season actually just happened last night (probably not last night by the time you’re reading this but that’s when I’m writing this paragraph so deal with it). It came off the bat at 106.7 mph. Let’s see what happened:

Exit velo isn’t everything. I don’t care how hard you hit the ball, if it comes off the bat at -18 degrees, it’s typically gonna result in an out. Lopez’s hardest batted ball this season traveled only five feet in the air and was an easy out to end the inning. Lopez has hit 27 balls over 100 mph this season with 14 going for hits, but only two have gone for extra bases.

With that digression aside...what was I writing about? Right, dingers. Bombs. Jimmy Jacks. Dongs. Nicky Lopez has not hit one this year. In his first three years in the majors, Nicky homered about once every 232 plate appearances. This season, he has 450 plate appearances without a long ball. Fortunately for Lopez, he doesn’t have the longest active homer drought this year. That ignominious distinction belongs to Myles Straw, who has 509 plate appearances without going yarbo this year.

If you’re reading this and your name is Nicky Lopez, I have an idea. Let’s try some visualization, that’s a big thing among athletes. We’ll do this by reviewing the homers you’ve hit in the majors and see what we can take away. If your name is not Nicky Lopez, we’re still going to look at all his homers because they’re delightful little treats that we should treasure. Let’s dive in.

Home run #1: June 13, 2019 vs. Detroit

Nicky’s first career homer is potentially the most fascinating. Let’s start by reviewing the film. This is not as straightforward as it seems. This was no ordinary matchup. This was MLB in Omaha, a gambit by MLB to try to connect their product to College Baseball (which is a superior product, don’t @ me). This game was played at TD Ameritrade Park two days before the College World Series. What better way to promote Major League Baseball to the people of Omaha than a matchup between two of the worst teams in the sport?

I am hesitant to give any branch of MLB credit for anything, but I will give credit to MLBAM: they do a very good job making video for just about anything available online via MLB Film Room. One can easily run a search to find film for all of Nicky Lopez’s home runs. At least in theory. But here we run into a problem:

Here we see four regular season bombs and one from Spring Training. Where’s his first career dong? If you remember this game, the ESPN broadcast experienced technical difficulties in the second inning, so the only people that got to see Nicky’s homer in real-time were those at the game. To this day the video does not exist on YouTube. I thought finding video of this homer might be akin to finding Bigfoot, but I managed to track down it down. The home run video I mean, not Bigfoot:

Imagine that: you hit your first career home run and the film of it looks like it’s straight out of 2009. Since it was hit in a college park, there’s no Statcast data available for it. Perhaps this was actually Nicky’s hardest hit ball, but we’ll never know. I also have no idea what pitch it was, but according to the box score on MLB.com, it was middle-middle. If anybody out there has the Zapruder film of this home run, please share.

In terms of game situation, this was a fairly run-of-the-mill bomb. A second-inning leadoff shot that put the Royals on the board en route to a handy 7-3 victory. In addition to giving the Royals the lead, it also gave the baseball world a fascinating nugget of trivia. Question: who is the only player to hit a home run in a Major League Baseball game in the state of Nebraska? Answer: Nicky Lopez. What a silly sport this is.

Perhaps ballpark familiarity was at play here. Lopez played his college ball at Creighton, which plays their home games at TD Ameritrade Park (now Charles Schwab Field). Then again, Nicky Lopez hit only two homers in his collegiate career, and both were on the road. To summarize: Nicky played 146 college baseball games and never went yard at his home ballpark. In one major league game in that same ballpark, he cleared the fence.

Also, the Royals lineup that day was something of a murderers’ row, featuring Cheslor Cuthbert batting third and a fearsome bottom third of Martin Maldonado, Terrance Gore, and Billy Hamilton. No wonder that team lost 103 games.

Home run #2: August 19, 2019 vs. Baltimore

Nicky’s second career dong introduced another lovely genre of home run: the dinger before the score bug has loaded:

In terms of game situation, this shot was big: a leadoff job that gave Kansas City a 4-2 lead. They would eventually go on to win 5-4. The pitch was a 94.4 mph four-seamer up-and-in from Gabriel Ynoa that Lopez turned on and yanked into the flag court in right field. This wasn’t a cheap shot either, traveling 393 feet. The location on the pitch really wasn’t bad. Lopez had just a .265 xWOBA on pitches high and tight in 2019 and averaged just 77.7 mph on batted balls in that zone. Lopez just managed to get to this one. This was one of only four barrels he had that season. Although he may have had five, since perhaps that first homer was also a barrel.

Home run #3: August 8, 2020 vs. Minnesota

It would be almost a full year between home runs two and three for Nicky. That sounds bad, but that was mostly because of the pandemic as he played 36 games between homers, which is less bad.

Lewis Thorpe screwed up pretty badly on this one. The pitch was an 80.5 mph slider that hung right down Broadway. That’s about as hittable of a pitch as one can ask for and Lopez took advantage, smoking it to the Bepis Party Porch. I think this can largely be attributed to the pandemic hair he was rocking here. Just look at it bounce as he rounds the bases. Don’t look at the rest of his season numbers, just trust me on this.

Home run #4: August 19, 2021 vs. Houston

It would be over a year before Lopez left the yard again, and this time there were no pandemic cancellations to blame. That said, 2021 was Lopez’s “breakout” season. Entering play on August 19, he had a line of .277/.347/.345, and he was coming off a three-hit game the previous night. This was a two-run shot that gave Kansas City a 3-0 lead:

This was his first homer off a good pitcher, as Luis Garcia was in the midst of a very nice rookie campaign. The pitch was a 1-0 curveball that floated in at 76.6 mph. The location wasn’t awful, but it caught enough of the zone that Nicky was able to drop the barrel on it and drive it to right. The exit velo on this was unexceptional: at 98.2 mph, it was just Nicky’s 57th hardest-hit batted ball in 2021. But he got it in the air enough to send it to the Royals bullpen. This was less a bomb and more a lovely pitching wedge shot placed on the green with precision. It still went 381 feet, so count it.

Home run #5: September 9th, 2021 vs. Baltimore

You might get some déjà vu from this one:

A slightly-above-average-velo four-seamer high and tight that Nicky turns on. In Baltimore. The stars were aligned as the ball sailed into a mostly empty section of the stands in right-center. This put Kansas City on the board en route to a 6-0 win.

So we have five homers off the bat of Nicky Nukes to enjoy. What can we take away from this? Nothing, really, but here are some facts you can file under “Stats That Exist But Do Not Matter”:

  • Lopez has hit just as many dingers in Baltimore as he has in his home park. That is the only regular road ballpark that he has homered in.
  • The platoon advantage is meaningless: three of Lopez’s five homers came against lefty pitchers.
  • Lopez’s longballs come early in the count: one was on the first pitch, while the other four were all on 1-0 pitches.
  • None of the tanks came on pitches away. On a related note, I would bet a large sum of money that Lopez will never hit a homer to center or left field.
  • Lopez is a second-half hitter: four of the five homers came in August or September.

Bringing this back around now, we’ve seen five homers from Lopez and none have come in 2022. Perhaps that’s in part due to the deadened ball that’s been used for at least part of this season. It also isn’t helping that Lopez isn’t hitting pull-side flyballs. As I mentioned earlier, he probably doesn’t have the raw power to go oppo taco or straightaway, so pulling flyballs is the only way he’ll hit them over the fence. Check out where Lopez’s batted balls with at least 10 degrees of launch angle have gone this year:

I’m not advocating for Nicky to start trying to hit more homers, but I figured he would have accidentally run into one by now. He’s been close a few times, with the following being the most notable examples:

Unfortunately, August has come and gone, and the Royals have already played their series in Baltimore, but there is still hope. The Royals have 21 games remaining, including series’ against poor pitching staffs like Boston and Minnesota. It’ll be hard to earn a cheap shot, as none of the remaining road games are at ballparks with high home run factors. Here’s hoping Nicky can put a charge in one and avoid finishing the season with a goose egg.

Poll

Will Nicky Lopez hit a home run this season?

  • 15%
    Yes
    (30 votes)
  • 84%
    No
    (160 votes)
190 votes total Vote Now