He may not be Abraham Lincoln, here to deliver the Gettysburg Address (at least according to Ned Yost), but Nicky Lopez arrived at The K on Tuesday amid a certain level of hoopla not seen for a Royals prospect in quite some time.
Thank goodness we’re not confusing Lopez with Abraham Lincoln because one, that would be really weird, and two, you get the feeling Lopez would look ridiculous with a beard and stovepipe hat.
Of course, some of the reason for the hoopla has been dissected for the better part of the season, almost since Chris Owings first dipped his big toe into the batter’s box. The whole “manager said/general manager said” dance only added to the intrigue.
Never mind the past. Lopez is another piece that represents the future.
It was somewhat surprising that Yost immediately slotted Lopez into the second spot in the order, but the contact profile fits best there. Initially, I had thought they would ease him in a bit, throw him in the bottom third of the lineup to let him get his feet wet. I went as far as to mock up a lineup I thought we could see in his debut and pencilled him in at seven, behind Ryan O’Hearn and ahead of Martin Maldonado and Billy Hamilton. But when looking at that order, it didn’t make much sense. Why put a hitter like Lopez into the abyss that is the lower half of the Royals lineup? Even if he’s unproven in the big leagues and needs time to acclimate to the league, with his profile it’s a disservice to hit him there.
Naturally, that creates a cascade effect. Mondesi drops to third, which feels like a better fit for his approach and offensive profile of speed and power. Mondesi, with a 57.3 percent swing rate, attacks the pitch more than any other Royal hitter. With a chase rate of 38.2 percent, he’s also the most aggressive out of the zone. That plays better lower in the order. Third fits for Mondesi like second for Lopez.
The Alex Gordon/Hunter Dozier combo that has combined for 3.5 fWAR in the early going (Gordon at 1.6 and Dozier at 1.9) likewise moves down. This, I’m not particularly thrilled with given the offensive success both have enjoyed, but in the big picture, it really shouldn’t be a huge deal. It also keeps the right-left rotation among the first five hitters intact.
Everything clicked on Tuesday as the Royals offense erupted for 11 runs.
In making his major league debut, Lopez was less nervous than he thought, but still took a moment to reflect. “I tried to take it all in when I went out there. I looked up… saw all the fans, the bright lights, the big crown in center field. You try to take as much in as possible.”
Lopez was presented with an opportunity immediately, striding to the plate in the first with Merrifield on second via a double, the first of his three hits on the night. Rangers starter Shelby Miller challenged him with fastballs and Lopez looked a little tardy on those pitches before flying out to left.
Another, even bigger, opportunity presented itself in the second, as the first three hitters reached in the inning to load the bases. Perhaps intent on not falling behind, Lopez offered at the first pitch. This time, Miller spun a curve that Lopez stung, but right at the second baseman for a fielder’s choice.
He walked and flew out again to left in his next two plate appearances. It was shaping up to be a solid, but rather uneventful night.
Until the seventh. Merrifield doubled to bring home the Royals 10th run. It was the 500th career hit for newly anointed right fielder. That brought up Lopez for the fifth time. He had been going the opposite way all game and didn’t change his approach, hanging with a cut fastball riding on the outer half and driving it into left field for a hit. There was much rejoicing.
For Lopez, it was an emotional cap to a whirlwind day. “That was one of the more emotional times of my career,” he said. “At first base, just looking up. Seeing the fans cheering, seeing my teammates cheer. I vividly remember looking at home plate and Whit standing there cheering for me too. And then I looked up in the press box and saw my parents going nuts. That’s when it hit me. I was like wow, this is the way I dreamed of it happening when I was a little kid.”
Part of the allure of baseball is the symmetry—both real and perceived. In this case you have Merrifield collecting a milestone hit, the second fastest player in Royals history to tally 500 career hits, which sets the stage for Lopez and his first career knock, a moment made possible by Merrifield agreeing (or insisting) he move positions to make room for Lopez.
And for the game’s final out, Lopez ranged to his left to snag a ground ball. One more assist and the evening was complete.