Presenting The All-“Deadball” Royals

As you are probably aware, the Royals’ Nicky Lopez had a pretty good season, hitting .300/.365/.378 and playing excellent defense. Not bad for a guy who was headed for Omaha out of spring training, only to be granted a reprieve when Adalberto Mondesi suffered an injury. Yet, for all the success Lopez had at the plate, he only hit two home runs. He did rack up 21 doubles and six triples to help out his slugging percentage, but home runs aren’t really his thing.

Lopez did make me start pondering how many other Royals had what would be considered a successful season while not hitting many home runs. Since he finished the season with those two dingers, I decided I would make that the limiting factor, although I wanted to find players who played as close to a full season as possible. With that in mind, here are the all-time “deadball” Royals:

Catcher
John Wathan/Don Slaught, 1983

When I first started going through Baseball Reference for this post, Wathan’s 1983 season caught my eye: a .245/.289/.314 mark with two home runs in 128 games. Yeah, that’s pretty bad, but the two home run limit made it difficult to find catchers who qualified. Then I realized that Slaught hit .312/.336/.388 in 89 games, but didn’t homer once. And of course, Wathan was playing some outfield and first base, as well. Wathan had more plate appearances as a catcher, 344 to 280, but if you combine the two, you have a catcher who hit .279/.317/.355 with those two homers. They also stole 22 bases, something you don’t normally get from a catcher. 

First base
Hal Morris, 1998

If you’ve read this site regularly, you know I have bemoaned the 1990s Royals’ fascination with first basemen who hit for average but little power. Morris is a great example. In 1998, his only season in Kansas City, he hit .309/.350/.381 with one home run in 127 games. Morris had had some power earlier in his career, hitting 16 home runs as a Red in 1996, but for whatever reason he couldn’t duplicate that in KC (and the 1996 Reds were still playing in old Riverfront Stadium–well, Cinergy Field–which was hardly a home run haven). By itself, that’s not a terrible line, but for a first baseman in the homer-happy late ‘90s, it wasn’t great. That’s why Morris had a 90 OPS+ for the year, meaning he was 10% worse than the average first baseman that year.

Second base
Jose Offerman, 1997

It was surprisingly difficult to find a good qualifying season at this position. Frank White had a couple of seasons where he hit two or fewer home runs, but his batting lines those years were pretty miserable (for example, 1976: .229/.263/.307…woof). Offerman only played in 106 games in 1997, but hit .297/.359/.394 with two home runs. Would he have topped that if he played, say, 150 games? Probably. But here we are. Like Lopez, Offerman augmented his slugging percentage with 20+ doubles and six triples. Unlike Lopez, Offerman was, um, not in Gold Glove contention.

Shortstop
Nicky Lopez, 2021

You might wonder about Freddie Patek here, but he would normally hit a handful of homers, and he usually wouldn’t hit for a high enough average to get the nod over Lopez this year.

Third base
George Brett, 1974

Yes, really. In Brett’s first full season, he only hit two home runs in 486 plate appearances. He hit .282/.313/.363 for the season as a 21-year-old. Which is to say, if Bobby Witt, Jr., struggles next season, let’s try not to get bent out of shape. Brett hit .338/.352/.444 over the last 53 games and never looked back. Oddly, his two home runs for the year came before that hot stretch. This season was enough for Brett to finish third in Rookie of the Year voting, but not really close to the winner, Mike Hargrove of Texas.

Left field
Tom Poquette, 1976

Here’s another guy who probably would have topped two home runs in a full season. In 1976, at age 24, Poquette hit .302/.361/.430 in 104 games to help the Royals win their first division title. At age 25, he hit .292/.337/.412 in 106 games to help the Royals win their second division title. But injuries and a certain speedy outfielder would cut Poquette’s career short. 

Center field
Willie Wilson, 1984

This is the speedy outfielder who supplanted Poquette. When Wilson came up, Amos Otis patrolled center field, relegating Wilson to left field. Of course, the latter eventually won out, and by 1984 he was well on his way to the Royals’ Hall of Fame. With his 1984 season cut a bit short by a suspension following his 1983 arrest on drug charges, Wilson was limited to 128 games. But he still hit .301/.350/.390 with two home runs and 47 stolen bases. His first home run of the year was an inside-the-park one; according to his home run log on Baseball Reference, it was the last one of those he ever hit–the rest of his home runs went over a fence. That seems crazy to me.

Right field
Nori Aoki, 2014

This was another spot I expected to have problems finding a decent qualifying season. But happily the Royals traded for Aoki before the 2014 season, thereby partially helping this blog post and the team’s first postseason appearance in 29 years come into being. I will leave it to you to decide which is more important. Aoki hit .285/.349/.360 in 132 games, popping one home run. He made the most of that one: it was a grand slam against Arizona on August 5. Aoki also tacked on 17 stolen bases and gave us this fantastic GIF:

That one never gets old. Sorry, Nori.

Designated hitter
Pat Tabler, 1988

Sure, we can have a DH on this team. Although this one is the farthest from the “played a whole season” concept of anyone on the list. Tabler had some pretty good seasons for Cleveland in the mid-1980s but started the 1988 season poorly and was soon traded to the Royals. Once in Kansas City, his bat woke back up and he hit .309/.358/.389 in 89 games with one homer. Tabler was a utility-type player, not just a DH, and I’m overruling Baseball Reference here–they list Bill Buckner as the main DH, but Tabler had more plate appearances for KC that season. I guess if you want to include his Cleveland numbers in 1988, Tabler hit .282/.349/.358 for the year with two home runs in 130 games.

Honorable mention/bench
Jarrod Dyson, 2016
Rey Sanchez, 1999
Jim Wohlford, 1974

By OPS+, 2016 was Dyson’s best year as a Royal: .278/.340/.388 in 337 plate appearances. Not quite a full season, though. Sanchez put up numbers comparable to the season Lopez had: .294/.329/.370 with two homers in 518 plate appearances, but Lopez actually drew some walks. Wohlford had career highs in games played (143) and plate appearances (549) in 1974, and hit .271/.327/.343 with two home runs. He would only occasionally be that good again but carved out a 15-year career as a reserve outfielder, which is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

With the versatility of Lopez, Tabler, Wathan, and even Offerman, this could conceivably be a full roster as far as position players. But would this team be any good? Here are the OPS+ numbers for these players in their particular seasons:
Slaught/Wathan: 95 (this is the team OPS+ number for the catchers)
Morris: 90
Offerman: 96
Lopez: 102
Brett: 91
Poquette: 130(!)
Wilson: 105
Aoki: 99
Tabler: 98 (including his time in Cleveland)
Dyson: 96
Sanchez: 78
Wohlford: 90

So this is likely a below-average offense, although not that far away from average. I was curious, so I plugged the lineup numbers into this lineup optimizer tool. It gave me a projection of 4.5 runs per game, although I would take that with a grain of salt. The American League average this year was 4.6 runs per game. So maybe if you plopped these players down in Kauffman Stadium, pushed the fences back to the original dimensions and put artificial turf in, then rounded up a league-average pitching staff (and this team would have some terrific defense), you might have an interesting team. Even without home runs.

Nicky Lopez photo by Minda Haas Kuhlmann

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