KANSAS CITY -- Back in May, as the Royals' fanbase was becoming more eager to see more prospects, the cry was on for second baseman Nicky Lopez to be promoted.
That moment finally came on May 14.
After a quick start -- Lopez was hitting .324 through nine games -- the challenges of the big leagues overwhelmed Lopez and he struggled to adjust over the next two months. A lingering hand/wrist injury certainly didn’t help.
But Lopez finished strong in late August and September, enough to convince critics he can be the second baseman of the future.
Here’s a quick overview of Lopez’s rookie season.
What went right?
Lopez finished on a high note and showed everyone his skill set. He was known as an extraordinary contact hitter in the Minor Leagues (at Triple-A this year he struck out five times in 138 plate appearances) and that’s who he was in September. In fact, he struck out just once in his final 41 at-bats, unheard of in today’s game.
Lopez also hit .317 with five doubles and a triple over his final 13 games.
“At one point, I just told him to be the player he was in the Minors,” former manager Ned Yost said. “I told him he didn’t have to be anything more. Just bring that same game to the big leagues. And he did.”
Lopez also made just four errors out of 438 chances defensively.
“Probably the most accurate arm we have,” said third base coach Mike Jirschele, who coaches the infielders.
Added Lopez, “That’s something I take a lot of pride in, just getting your feet set and always trying to make a perfect throw.”
What went wrong?
After that quick start, Lopez looked overmatched for over two months. His average exit velocity was in the low 80s.
“Just a lot of weak contact,” Yost said.
But his hard-hit rate spike 10 points to nearly 28 percent in the final 10 games. What changed?
“The injury didn’t help when I was struggling,” Lopez said. “I hurt it from getting jammed so many times and after that it was always in the back of my mind. But as it got better I was more confident.
“And I think for awhile I was really trying to do too much. I kind of lost sight of why I was here a little bit when I was struggling. I just went back to the basics, lowered my hands a tiny bit, but went back to the basics to have fun. I’m up here for a reason. I did stuff to get here. It was going back to that.”
In a two-game series against the Braves in late September, Lopez displayed his offensive game: He went 5-for-8 with two doubles and a triple. Both doubles were hustle doubles. And in the second game against the Braves, with runners on first on third and one out, Lopez alertly saw the first baseman not charging after holding the runner on.
Lopez then placed a perfect safety squeeze bunt, so perfect he not only got the run home but he got a base hit out of it. That is his game.
The Royals need Lopez to take control of the second base job and he showed signs in the last six weeks that he can. Yost believes he eventually could be a top-of-the-order guy down the road because of his ability to get on base and run the bases. The Royals already know Lopez is an above-average defender with a strong and accurate arm.