Sam Mellinger

Trying to explain why the Royals flipped so quickly about calling up Nicky Lopez

Nicky Lopez hasn’t stop smiling since being called up to Royals

Kansas City Royals infielder Nicky Lopez shared the story of how he learned he was going to the majors, and he discussed his readiness for the big leagues prior to making his debut against the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium on May 14, 2019.
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Kansas City Royals infielder Nicky Lopez shared the story of how he learned he was going to the majors, and he discussed his readiness for the big leagues prior to making his debut against the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium on May 14, 2019.

The curious case of Nicky Lopez’s promotion can be explained in a few ways.

By now you know the Royals pulled a remarkably quick 180 over the weekend, with general manager Dayton Moore telling beat reporters that Lopez would not be called up in the near future, and then deciding with manager Ned Yost a few hours later to ... call up Lopez.

Here was Moore’s explanation after the news became official: “We’re going to simply move forward with the most productive players that we can for the immediate future.”

Here was Yost’s explanation before Lopez debuted at second base and batted second on Tuesday: “Dayton came in and said, ‘What do you think about bringing Nicky up now? I’m like, ‘Man, let’s go ahead and do it. Might as well.’”

You should not be surprised to know those explanations are neither misleading or complete.

The next seven paragraphs are the truth, or at least the closest version of the truth I could find after conversations with club officials:

The Royals always planned on Lopez playing in the big leagues sometime this summer. The original plan was for sometime in June or more likely July. Yost and Moore first broached the idea of jumping the timeline after a series against the Angels at the end of April. At the time, they ultimately agreed it didn’t make sense.

Lopez needed to play every day, somewhere, and there are so many moving parts to these things. The club’s internal projections remained optimistic that Chris Owings’ numbers would improve, and there may have been an instinct from Yost to see that out — both for his own reasons and to give a chance for the front office to be right about Owings’ contract.

The worry about Whit Merrifield’s legs was real, too. Teams can measure everything now. Merrifield’s so-called exertion rate ran high. He is too important to risk. Additionally, some concern existed about how a player who just signed a long-term extension to play second base would react to being asked to move away from the position after a month.

But the next two weeks only furthered concerns and validated the reasons Moore and Yost talked about doing it early. Owings’ numbers continued to dive, with a strikeout rate that suggested broken confidence and an overmatched bat.

Moore’s aversion to open tanking is sometimes misinterpreted. He believes in development. But he believes the best way to develop is to win. In that way, Lopez benefits the Royals in both the short- and long-term. He is the future and the now.

When they talked after Saturday’s game, Yost said he wanted to bring up Lopez immediately. Moore needed to hear from Yost that Lopez would play every day. Yost needed to hear from Moore than Lopez would be promoted if he played every day. They secured buy-in from Merrifield.

Once they had all of that, they had their decision.

So, that’s how we got here, to a series in mid-May with the Royals already buried in last place but intent on making the most of the rest of the season. They wanted to keep Lopez in Omaha a little longer, but circumstances changed. Lopez outperformed Triple A, and the Royals’ own barriers against needing him too soon have busted.

The scouting judgments are interesting here. Some see a superhuman 20-to-5 walk-to-strikeout ratio and envision Lopez as something like Placido Polanco. Others see too much soft contact to make an impact at the game’s highest level.

If Lopez’s plate discipline translates to the big leagues, he could be a wonderfully productive fit for this lineup by cutting down its strikeouts and increasing the number of pitches thrown by the opposition.

Think about it like this. Whether Merrifield gets on base or not, teams are not going to want to walk Lopez with Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier and Alex Gordon coming up. And if Lopez’s eye is as good as everyone says, that means pitchers are going to have to hit the corners or throw it over the middle part of the plate.

This is, potentially, a case of Lopez helping those around him in the lineup and those around him in the lineup helping Lopez. That a shallow lineup now lengthens to where the catcher spot and Billy Hamilton are the only soft points is an important bonus.

At 3:06 on Tuesday afternoon, Lopez walked into the clubhouse and saw an old friend. Danny Duffy, that night’s starting pitcher, smiled and yelled a nickname and wrapped Lopez in his arms. Lopez thanked Duffy for the congratulations, and walked toward his locker.

He was smiling from the first moment reporters saw him until the last. He would say he never stopped since hearing the news on Sunday.

If things go right, this will be a mutually beneficial relationship. The future is speeding up. Faster than the Royals expected. So much more needs to come. This is an important moment. But still, only a moment.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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