SURPRISE, Ariz. -- In Monday’s 10-3 Cactus League win over the A’s, Royals second baseman Nicky Lopez came to the plate with runners on second and third base with no outs in the fourth inning. He got to a two-strike count against A’s pitcher Yusmeiro Petit and hit a ground ball up the middle, in a perfect position to allow Anderson Miller to score from third and Kyle Isbel to get to third.
Lopez was out at first base. But the situational hitting was key.
“That’s the kind of player Nicky is going to need to be,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said. “Whether you call them little things or not, the idea of moving runners over, the idea of laying down a bunt, the idea of putting pressure on. It takes some buy in -- we all would like to get up there and hit moonshots like [Jorge] Soler hit [Tuesday]. But not everybody has the ability to do that.
“Right now, this is who you need to be. That’s a tough at-bat every single time up: put the ball in play, move guys around the field, be an action player when you get on base. I’m seeing some of that in his approach.”
Lopez, 25, came up in the Minors as a contact-hitter with a high on-base percentage. Between Double-A and Triple-A in 2018, he posted a .308 average and .382 OBP. When he was called up in May 2019, he was hitting .353 with a .457 OBP in 31 games with Triple-A Omaha.
After spending the rest of 2019 with the Royals, Lopez’s goal that offseason was to get stronger and hit for more power. With the way that the game is trending, some players find themselves not as worried about strikeouts, instead swinging for home runs, no matter the situation.
But that’s not who Lopez is.
Lopez hit .201/.286/.266 in 56 games in 2020. His defense remained Gold Glove-caliber, but he struggled, with 41 strikeouts in 192 plate appearances -- the 21.4 percent strikeout rate by far his highest since he entered the Royals' system.
“That was pretty difficult because you expect so much out of yourself, you expect to get up and start hitting,” Lopez said early last week. “But obviously, you’re going up against the best of the best, and sometimes you’re going to get slapped in the face. You have to make those necessary adjustments.”
Lopez’s focus this winter was more on hitting and less on bulking up his body. He simplified and compacted his swing, trying to be more direct with the ball instead of forcing a looping action. His approach was less about power and more about getting on base or moving the runner over, depending on the situation.
“Obviously it’s easier said than done when you’re in the box in the big leagues facing the top pitchers in the world, but basically that’s all it is,” Lopez said. “Just kind of simplifying it -- be more direct to the ball, more compact. Looking back at what got me here and trying to repeat that.”
The Royals have put their confidence in Lopez at second base for 2021. The offseason acquisitions of first baseman Carlos Santana and left fielder Andrew Benintendi were made to give the Royals more on-base ability and power, but it also takes the pressure of off Lopez to be a power hitter in the lineup. He’ll likely hit at the bottom of the order come Opening Day, setting him up to get on base for the top of the lineup.
Early signs in spring have Lopez confident that the adjustments he made will transfer into the regular season.
“I know what I did to get up to the big leagues, and I need to just get back to that,” Lopez said. “Put the ball in play, play small ball. I’m going to be batting low in the order, I know that, so any way to get on, any way to move a runner so that they’re in scoring position for Whit [Merrifield], [Adalberto Mondesi], Benny, Soler to drive them in. That’s what I need to do. Slowly but surely getting back to that.
“Obviously in Spring Training, you’re just trying to get your feet wet, but I like where it’s headed.”