Vahe Gregorian

Nicky Lopez has gone from 145-pound rail to a presumptive pillar of the Royals’ future

Creighton coach on development of Royals’ Nicky Lopez

Creighton coach Ed Servais explains how Nicky Lopez became a potential pillar of the Royals’ future.
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Creighton coach Ed Servais explains how Nicky Lopez became a potential pillar of the Royals’ future.

The picture sits subtly propped in the office window just over the left shoulder of Creighton baseball coach Ed Servais, and it’s easy to overlook in the chaotic clutter of his lair on game day.

But it stands out like a beacon, too, the one visual aide Servais will refer to in an hour-long interview about Lopez on Thursday.

Because it speaks eloquently to Lopez’s improbable gateway from a lightly recruited incoming freshman here in 2013 to a presumptive pillar of the Royals’ future — a notion amplified by his call-up to the parent club earlier this week.

As Servais looks at the photo of the then-Bluejay infielder seizing a grounder his way, he is struck by everything from his fundamentally perfect posture to the intensity that reflects a rare love for the game.

“Notice where the hands are, and notice where his eyes are and notice how low he’s getting to the ball,” Servais said. “This is a perfect example of how to field a ground ball.”

This explains why Servais initially recruited Lopez, who is a thin 5-foot-11 and supposedly 170 pounds-plus now but all of 145 pounds back then.

“He’s going to be disappointed I said that, because he doesn’t want anybody to think of him like that,” Servais said, smiling and adding, “But I don’t worry about the physicality of a player. I worry about, ‘Is he a baseball player?’ And Nicky’s a baseball player.”

So Creighton figured it could build around his defense and develop the rest. Which was about right: At Creighton, he went from hitting .276 with a .314 slugging percentage as a freshman to batting .306 with a .444 slugging percentage as a junior before being selected by the Royals in the fifth round of the 2016 draft.

The manner in which he did all this, though, is the essential part of the story. You’ve heard this in recent days from general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost, but perhaps no one outside Lopez’s family knows the substance of that better than Servais.

If you think Lopez looks baby-faced at 24 years old, well …

“He almost plays like he’s 7 or 8 years old sometimes, with that enthusiasm” Servais said, smiling. “If we all can remember when we first put a baseball uniform on, how we used to sleep maybe with our gloves in anticipation of the morning game. How we got up early to wake up our parents to get us to the game.

“Nicky plays the game like that today, and I think it’s going to be contagious throughout that organization, throughout that team. He’s going to bring that to the clubhouse every day, and I would be surprised if I don’t see a lot more Royals smiling, enjoying the game.”

To be sure, the example and mindset arrived with Lopez from Naperville, Illinois.

“I can’t say enough about his parents (Angela and Bob),” Servais said. “You’re a product of your environment, and Nicky Lopez is a product of his environment. It must have been a great upbringing at the Lopez household.”

Just the same, everyone’s disposition and attitude ultimately is their own decision. So let’s give Lopez some credit, too, for the personality that at once sets him apart and makes him such a part of things that are bigger than himself.

That sense of purpose has proven a key part of his ascent, from his sheer coachability to his infectious influence on others to the broader meaning of being a great teammate to his resilience.

Despite being “undersized in many ways” when he was being recruited, as Servais put it, Lopez had appeal because of what might be considered an ample heart.

Servais and his staff liked his “actions,’ Servais said, even before they knew how that would translate in terms of the intangibles that defined him nearly as soon as he arrived.

“You could tell immediately that he was different, because he had kind of a genuine joy for playing,” Servais said. “And young players the last several years, I don’t know who’s teaching them this, but they don’t show that much anymore.”

What comes with this is a certain charisma that can change a room. He’s a magnet in many ways, the sort of guy “you want to go visit with” and the one who controlled the upbeat music on the bus rides at Creighton.

To say nothing of his game itself, inauspiciously as it began even at Creighton.

Servais laughed as he recalled the first throw freshman Lopez made from third base in an early scrimmage at TD Americatrade Park, home of the College World Series. He airmailed the ball over first base, and Servais had a flickering thought that maybe he wouldn’t be ready to help that year after all.

Turned out it was a blip.

“I don’t know if I ever saw him make a missed throw the rest of his career,” said Servais, who figured nearly all of Lopez’s 16 collegiate errors were either because of bounces or glovesmanship. “If you really study this player, his throwing accuracy is something to marvel at.”

Also off the charts: Lopez is an amazing contact hitter. He struck out only 48 times in more than 600 plate appearances at Creighton, and that eye has stayed steady in his rise through the Royals’ system. In 31 games at Triple A Omaha this season, he swung and missed all of 18 times and struck out on just five occasions.

A baseball player.

“We’re kind of in this home run crazed era right now, but I think it’s going to swing back a little bit more to where organizations are going to want to see their players control the strike zone better,” Servais said. “And, Nicky, that’s right up his alley.”

That’s part of what he means when he calls Lopez a “generational player,” in this case meaning his skill set would have been valued as much 30 or 40 years ago as it will be for the Royals in the present and near future.

Along with pitching, defense and speed and putting the ball in play — what Servais calls an “action style of baseball” that his own teams play — are key points of emphasis for the Royals.

All of which explains why the Royals view him as a building block for this particular generation, in tandem with Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier and others.

“Nicky is going to fit exactly the direction they want to go,” said Servais, who has produced several major-league players here. “And he’s going to stick, too. He’s going to be there.”

Thanks to his upbringing, Servais will tell you, and the Royals’ scouting and development.

But also thanks to the portal to his future represented by Creighton, where Lopez met his girlfriend and worked out in the offseason and where Servais believes he will continue pursuing what he recalled was a business degree with an emphasis on finance.

“Which is a pretty good major for Nicky,” he said, smiling and adding, “Because he’s probably going to have to finance some things here soon.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.
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