January 29, 2023

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'That's him': Nicky Lopez flashes positive signs with recent success

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KANSAS CITY — The inside fastball Nicky Lopez drove to the middle of the field in Monday’s game against Guardians right-hander Zach Plesac encapsulates the kind of hitter the 27-year-old middle infielder is: Contact-oriented and on-base focused, whose success at the plate is established with how well he controls his bat when a ball finds the strike zone.

“That’s him,” manager Mike Matheny said. “He’s just got to keep in mind, ‘Who am I, and how can I be as effective as I can possibly be?’ When the ball is carrying into the gap, it’s when he’s staying to the middle, hustling out doubles. He’s got bat control.”

As Lopez shows signs of the .300 hitter he was in 2021, when he became the first Royals shortstop to hit that mark, he can’t help but reflect on that career year, from the way it started — when he was optioned to Triple-A in Spring Training because of his lack of production — to the way it ended, as the Royals’ everyday shortstop with a .743 OPS and 22 stolen bases. Lopez had just a 13.1% strikeout rate and an eye-popping 6.0 WAR after FanGraphs updated its defensive metrics to help improve the measurement of a player’s range. It added 1.6 WAR to Lopez’s already impressive 4.4 mark.

The 2021 stats will resurface in two weeks, when Lopez has his arbitration hearing with the Royals on June 16. Arbitration cases were delayed because of the lockout this offseason, and the Royals were unable to come to an agreement with two of their eight arb-eligible players during Spring Training, leading to hearings in the middle of the season. Outfielder Andrew Benintendi won his case on May 13 and is making $8.5 million in his final year before free agency.

Lopez is a Super Two player in his first year of arbitration. His representation filed at $2.95 million, while the Royals countered at $2.55 million.

As much as Lopez focuses on the present, the upcoming hearing has crossed Lopez’s mind away from the ballpark.

“I’m big on relationships,” Lopez said. “I think the biggest thing about the arbitration process is I don’t want any relationships getting torn. They were telling me that this is part of the business, that everything will work out and I just need to go out there and play. That’s been difficult, I won’t lie to you, because I’m playing and knowing that it’s coming up, but hopefully afterward it’ll take a bit off my shoulders.”

Telling himself to “not think about it” — well, that’s easier said than done.

“This is our life, our livelihood,” Lopez said. “I don’t know what to expect when I go through it, but it’s in the back of my mind that it’s coming up.”

Lopez has expressed interest in a deal that would buy out some of all of his remaining arbitration years. It would make sense for both sides, with the Royals viewing Lopez as part of their future and Lopez emphasizing his desire to stay in Kansas City long-term.

“This is the only team that I really know,” Lopez said. “Got drafted by this team, got up to the big leagues quickly, which is awesome. And they could have kept me down, manipulated me with service time being a Super Two player, but they didn’t do that. They’ve always been great to me. Always been to their word, whatever Dayton [Moore] and J.J. [Picollo] say is going to happen, it usually happens. I have a lot of trust in them. … They’ve made me feel at home and have taken care of me.”

Lopez, who is starting to heat up with a .320 average in his last seven games, also believes certainty would help get the most out of his performance. He knows his hitting profile isn’t about power, but his contact ability, speed and defensive versatility up the middle adds value to any team.

“One thing that makes me tick and allows me to perform at my best is when certainty is there,” Lopez said. “The certainty of being here for awhile, I think would help me. But I know it’s a business, I know this is how it goes.

“I care a lot about this organization. I do want to be here for as long as I can, help them win as long as I can.”

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