December 5, 2022

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Lineup shakeup: Witt drops, Lopez to leadoff

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KANSAS CITY — In an effort to spark an offensive breakout and find the right fit in the order for certain hitters, the Royals switched around their lineup ahead of Thursday’s series finale against the Twins at Kauffman Stadium.

Manager Mike Matheny moved MLB’s No. 1 overall prospect, Bobby Witt Jr., down to the No. 7 spot instead of the No. 2 and 3 spots he’s appeared in during the first 10 games of the season. The 21-year-old third baseman has struggled at the plate during the first two weeks of his Major League career as he adjusts to the way pitchers are attacking him: He’s seen almost as many breaking balls (40.5 percent) as fastballs (49.7 percent) this year and entered Thursday hitting .128.

Witt has run into some bad luck — two nights ago, he hit a double play grounder with a 104 mph exit velocity — but he’s also striking out at a 32.5 percent clip. The struggles aren’t unexpected for a rookie, even one as highly regarded as Witt, and the Royals are confident he’ll work his way out of it.

“Bobby just wants to be on the field, and we want to see him out there and put him in a spot where he can have success,” Matheny said.

“He’ll be fine,” Whit Merrifield added. “I just told him to keep making plays defensively to help us win, keep doing the little things to help us win, and he’ll be fine. He’ll adjust. He just needs a little success to get the ball rolling and will be just fine.

“We’re 10 games in, and he’s a good series away from hitting .300 and being where he needs to be. I know the numbers don’t look good on the scoreboard, but it’s 10 games.”

Matheny also moved Nicky Lopez to the leadoff spot and Merrifield to the No. 2 hole, marking the first time Merrifield has not hit leadoff since Sept. 27, 2020, when Alex Gordon hit at the top in his final game. There was a stretch of nine games at the end of May 2019 when Lopez hit leadoff and Merrifield second, but since then, Merrifield has been at the top.

Lopez entered Thursday hitting .367, and the thought process behind the Lopez-Merrifield-Andrew Benintendi combination at the top of the lineup is getting more baserunners on ahead of Salvador Perez, as well as ensuring there’s a right-handed batter (Merrifield) in between Lopez and Benintendi, two lefties.

“Much as anything, just trying to find what fits where each guy is right now,” Matheny said. “Nicky makes a lot of sense at the top of the order. … Part of it is, too, giving Bobby a different look. All those things combined. The guys are good. They get it. We do what we got to do to try and find out how to let this offense do what it can do.”

Merrifield, who entered Thursday hitting .150, was open to the change, while also noting that where players hit in the lineup isn’t as big of a deal as it used to be, given that pitchers tend to have an individualized plan for each batter.

“I was talking to Brad [Keller] about it a few days ago randomly,” Merrifield said. “I was like, ‘A guy hitting nine, does it matter if he’s hitting nine or fourth or sixth? Does that change the way you pitch to him?’ He said, ‘No. If a guy can’t hit a slider, we’ll throw him sliders.’ It’s not like it used to be where if you’re hitting ninth, you’re getting more fastballs. It’s just not like that anymore. You’re going to get pitched to a certain way no matter where you’re at.”

Still, hitting second allows Merrifield a different look. He led off the first inning Wednesday with a double that looked like it would be a home run over the left-field fence, but left fielder Trevor Larnach knocked it back in.

“Just kind of the way it’s going for me right now, even when I get a break, it’s not really a break, because it was going to be a homer and the guy knocked it back in,” Merrifield said. “I got some hits coming, I’ll tell you that.”

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