'Brutal honesty' has Lopez hitting like himself

July 19th, 2021

KANSAS CITY -- There is a saying that has gone back to over and over this season. He says it when he’s deciphering his approach. He remembers it when he finds himself struggling at the plate. He uses it when explaining why he’s had the season he’s had so far, full of consistent production.

“Be the best Nicky Lopez I can be.”

It’s a widely used phrase in baseball. But for Lopez, it’s the best explanation as to why he’s been one of the bright spots offensively and defensively all year for the Royals -- after he was originally slated to start the season in Triple-A.

“It sounds so cliché,” Lopez said. “But I felt like I wasn’t really him. I was swinging at balls out of the zone. I was trying to hit balls in the air. I shouldn’t be doing that.”

This was the picture of Lopez this spring. A few months after he ended the shortened 2020 season having hit .201 with a .552 OPS, doubts swirling about his starting job in the infield, Lopez showed up to Surprise, Ariz., knowing he needed to get back to the player he was in the Minor Leagues. But as camp rolled on, Lopez couldn’t break out. He hit .118 in 16 Cactus League games. He struck out 13 times in 34 at-bats.

It culminated with manager Mike Matheny explaining on March 28 why the Royals were optioning Lopez to Triple-A, ensuring that Lopez would be back up soon, after he got back to the player the organization knew he was.

Afterward, Lopez sat in a conference room with assistant general manager J.J. Picollo and Minor League hitting coordinator Alec Zumwalt. They combed through data and video, looking back at Lopez’s best Minor League season (2018) and comparing it to his mechanics from 2020. That day, Lopez and Zumwalt went to the batting cage and got to work.

“Truthfully, we probably spent more time talking than we did hitting that whole week,” Zumwalt said. “We gave him brutal honesty that he needed to hear. And here we are now. He’s taken that situation and made it possibly the greatest thing that’s ever happened to him.”

Lopez wasn’t away for long. The Royals needed him sooner than they thought they would when shortstop Adalberto Mondesi started the season on the injured list. So Lopez ended up in the Opening Day lineup -- and he’s stuck there. He has hit .274 with a .356 on-base percentage. He’s struck out just 37 times in 241 at-bats and walked 31 times. In his last 30 games, he’s hit .351 and become almost an ideal No. 9 hitter -- getting on base for the top of the lineup to do damage.

Four days changed Lopez’s season, and it was because he became himself again.

“The main focus was, ‘We’re not revamping your swing. We’re not changing your mechanics. Let’s just focus on getting you back to that main simple priority of hitting the fastball and not missing,’” Zumwalt said. “His skillset has always been there. His track record has been the same all the way up until he got to the big leagues. He doesn’t swing and miss at fastballs.”

In 2020, Lopez whiffed at 16.1 percent of the fastballs he saw. This year, that’s down to 10.1 percent. His zone contact percentage last year was 82.4 percent. This year, it’s 91.6 percent. His chase percentage is down (25.2 percent last year, 22.8 percent this year), and he’s going the opposite way more (23.7 percent last year, 29.7 percent this year) while pulling the ball less (32.8 percent last year, 23.9 percent this year). Lopez is also hitting the ball harder, averaging an 87.1 mph exit velocity -- the highest of his career.

“One of his biggest gifts is his bat-to-ball skills,” Zumwalt said. “Solid contact is going to produce hard contact. That’s the main focus. When we were doing work in the cage, it was built around that. Trust your mechanics and focus on solid contact in the zone. That’ll help you not chase, help you stay within yourself, help you from not overswinging.”

Last year, Lopez was so focused on working walks and getting on base that he would find himself taking a good pitch in the zone in a 2-0 or 1-0 count. Those were missed opportunities. The issue was highlighted by a conversation he had with Whit Merrifield earlier this year. Lopez was in a slump, and Merrifield saw him take a good pitch in a 2-0 count. Then, Lopez got a slider on the next pitch and rolled it over to second base.

“I was like, ‘You’re in the big leagues for a reason,’” Merrifield said. “You can handle the bat, you can swing the bat. You get a good pitch to hit, you can’t give away strikes up here on a consistent basis.’ I just tried to talk to him about an aggressive mentality, and I think that registered with him.

“He’s got a little more swagger with the bat now.”

The confidence is showing, and the results help. But Lopez’s mindset is a lot different this year, too, so when the results he wants aren’t there, he doesn’t find himself in a negative cycle of thoughts. He’s taken to journaling and reading back when he needs to, especially about the few days he spent working with Zumwalt.

“It was a huge mindset change,” Lopez said. “Revamped my mindset. Knowing that I might be in a slump but trusting my process and trusting my routine, I know it’s going to work out.”

On Friday night against the Orioles, Lopez came up with two outs in the seventh and two runners on. He took a first-pitch slider for a strike, then took a ball in the dirt to even the count. Lopez then fouled off two pitches -- both around the zone -- before seeing a slider up, waiting on it and poking it through the left side for an opposite-field double.

Two runs scored, giving Lopez a career-high four RBIs.

“He wasn’t trying to get pull happy, not trying to think power,” Matheny said. “Next thing he knows, he has the opposite gap with some juice. And that has been what’s been the difference. If we can keep him in that place to where he doesn’t feel like he needs to generate more and doesn’t try to do more than what he’s been doing, he’s going to get hard hits.”

He’s going to be Nicky Lopez.