Nicky Lopez hasn’t stop smiling since being called up to Royals
Long before he became the perfect fit for the Royals at this moment (and more on that soon), Nicky Lopez argued with air.
That is not a metaphor. That is not a slick way of describing something. That is literally what he did.
He played imaginary ballgames as a kid. He waved his bat like Gary Sheffield, or went the opposite way like Derek Jeter, or looped a swing like Ken Griffey Jr. Lots of kids do this. You probably know one. Maybe you are one. But how many kids break up those imaginary games with nobody around by arguing?
Here’s a scene from the Lopez’s suburban Chicago house: he comes in from the backyard, shirt muddy, pants grass stained (from sliding obviously) and sees his parents.
Who were you arguing with, Nicky?
“The umpire,” he says. “He made a bad call.”
The kid is grown up now, 24 years old with a short and blink-quick swing all his own that brought him to the big leagues. And not just to the big leagues, but here with a supernatural skill that is both what the Royals desperately need and a giant outlier from where baseball is and where the sport is going.
In the era of big swings and rising strikeouts, Lopez is a freakishly effective contact hitter.
He only debuted in the major leagues this week, so it’s far too early to say where he rates around the sport. But one club official said he’s the best contact hitter the Royals have had in years.
“Can’t recall anyone close, really,” he said.
You can see this in numbers. He has never struck out more than he’s walked — in college or as a pro. In 31 games with Triple A Omaha before his call-up he had 20 walks and five strikeouts. He swung and missed a total of 18 times. In 375 career minor league games he struck out more than once in 15. That’s exactly 4 percent.
That skill has translated so far. Entering the weekend, he had walked three times and struck out once in the major leagues. He swung 15 times and made contact on all but two.
This is in direct opposition to how the sport is now played at its highest level. Last year, only four regular hitters walked more than they struck out. Over the last decade, contact rates have steadily fallen from 80.7 percent in 2010 to 76.1 percent in 2019. That would be the lowest mark since at least 2002, the first year of data available on FanGraphs.
The 11 seasons in baseball history with the most strikeouts are the last 11, in perfect reverse chronological order. This season is tracking to beat them all.
Lopez, then, represents something rare and precious: a talented prospect with a valuable skill that should play well in both Kauffman Stadium and the Royals’ lineup.
You know the Royals’ lineup lacks balance but the numbers entering the weekend still stagger: the Royals’ first four hitters average an .886 OPS. The last three hitters in the lineup average a .562 OPS.
Basically, the top of the Royals’ order has been Mookie Betts and the bottom has been Grayson Greiner.
Every bit of length that the Royals can find for their lineup is like compounding interest. Instead of three holes, now there are two, and not just that but Lopez profiles to be the perfect fit for the Royals’ No. 2 spot.
Hitting behind Whit Merrifield (.343 on-base percentage) means lots of opportunities for Lopez to use that bat control to drive in a run with a single or even advance a runner. And with Adalberto Mondesi, Alex Gordon and Hunter Dozier hitting behind him pitchers will be loath to walk the rookie.
Well, that rookie happens to possess an exceptional feel for the strike zone so those pitches will need to be on the corners. If they’re off the plate, he’s taking. And if they’re down the middle he’s hitting a line drive. That’s a tall challenge.
“I’m either going to get a pitch to hit or it’s a ball,” Lopez said. “I have an idea of that. I know the pitcher is going to come after me. It’s just a good place for me to be right now. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
In some ways, Lopez is an unlikely contact hitter. He often cites his father when talking about his love of baseball. Bob Lopez is built like a barrel, a former semi-pro football player who once tried out for the Bears and gained some notoriety as a power hitter in Chicagoland 16-inch softball. His teams won national championships and in 2010 Lopez was inducted to the sport’s Hall of Fame.
A pure power hitter raised one of the game’s most promising contact hitters. Nicky laughs at the juxtaposition.
“Born a contact hitter, I guess,” he said.
He might mean that literally. He knows no tricks and practices no special training methods to develop his skill. Ping-pong is sort of the base competition that favors hand-eye coordination and Lopez claims to be terrible. The only thing he can think of beyond natural talent and focus is that he plays a lot of video games. Sorry, parents.
Lopez is blessed with quick hands, exceptional eyesight, and supreme confidence. The combination allows him to start his swing a fraction later than most, which allows for both better strike recognition and more reliable contact. When the count goes to two strikes, he exaggerates the approach — wider stance, smaller stride, all hands.
“I’m not comparing him to Paul Molitor right now in any sense,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “But that’s what Pauly did. Pauly’s swing was so short and quick he could see-see-see-see-see, then, boom (swing), just like that.”
Lopez showed that off immediately, in his first plate appearance that club officials hope is a symbol of his rare skill. Down 0-2 in the count, he went into that two-strike survival mode, a necessity because Rangers pitcher Shelby Miller went for the kill with a four-seamer a full 3 mph faster than the last.
Lopez fouled it into the stands, then took a changeup off the plate for a ball, and then centered another fastball deep enough to move the runner over. It’s those little moments that scouts and coaches often cite when determining a prospect’s future. Here, with nerves running through him, Lopez trusted his strengths and turned baseball’s worst count into a positive result.
He won’t be flashy. The Royals don’t need flashy. He will be reliable, though, and the Royals need all of that they can get.