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Royals Lose, But Lopez Shows Something
It was a pyrrhic victory in a real-life loss, but a game-tying single provided some hope for Nicky Lopez.
The end result wasn’t what the Royals wanted in losing 4-2 to the Indians yesterday, but something stood out to me in the game that I see as a huge positive and that’s the game tying single from Nicky Lopez in the top of the seventh inning. Actually, I want to mention the whole inning because it was something that the Royals can absolutely build on in spite of having a bit of a tough go of it against Shane Bieber (many do, obviously).
The top of the seventh started with a strikeout by Hunter Dozier and that’s when things got interesting against a maybe tiring Bieber. He got ahead of Kyle Isbel 0-2 and based on the previous plate appearances by Isbel, it sure seemed like this was going to be his 13th strikeout of the game, but Isbel battled and ended up working a seven pitch walk that knocked Bieber out of the game after throwing 103 pitches over 6.1 innings. I just really wanted to highlight that Isbel PA because it was very, very impressive. Just look at where these pitches were:
Okay, anyway, on to the really interesting topic I want to discuss and it’s Lopez. After Michael A. Taylor was probably about an eighth of an inch from giving the Royals the lead and instead singling to left, Lopez came up against James Karinchak, who is an incredibly tough reliever. If you haven’t seen him pitch, he’s a big hulking guy who stalks around the mound, flips the baseball and then throws upper-90s with a curve ball that got swings and misses on 56.3 percent of swings last year. It’s a tough assignment. It wasn’t too long ago that Lopez was struggling against spring training competition and get optioned, so this seems like a mismatch.
But I think Lopez has figured at least a little something out, even in that short time he was working on his swing away from game pressure. No, I’m not saying he’s going to hit .438 all season long, but there’s been something bizarre to me for the last few months that guys like Nick Madrigal can find serious success while Lopez simply can’t. They’re just not that different.
The talk is that Lopez was going back to an approach that worked for him and that had us all clamoring for him to get called up in 2019. While it wasn’t working in spring, I think we’re seeing a lot of the results right now. He’s made fantastic contact, swinging and missing just once before yesterday and twice yesterday against Bieber, a pitcher many swing and miss againt. He’s struck out just twice so far in 19 plate appearances.
So what’s different? He’s putting himself in a better position to get to velocity. He actually fared okay against pitches at 95 MPH or harder last year, hitting .333 with three doubles, but of the 58 pitches at the velocity he saw that were not balls, he made contact with 30 of them and only seven were hard hit. His average exit velocity on high velocity was much higher than his season total, but it was never impressive. Look at this ground ball against the Indians last season. Check out where his front foot is and how it’s flat against the ground when the pitch comes in.
Now look at a ball he hit yesterday. His front foot is lifted a bit pre-pitch. His bat is way less quiet pre-pitch, which has his hands in hitting pitch earlier. Sometimes quieter isn’t always better for a hitter. This allows him to get in a better position to make contact.
He’s never going to be a guy who will drive the ball with any kind of real authority, so for him to be prepared to make contact with anything is important. He actually ends up in a similar position to where he was last season to start the pitch, but he’s already gotten going with his swing. Without talking to him, I can’t know for sure, but I think just getting the mechanics of his swing going, it allows him to consistently make more contact and make things happen.
That at bat yesterday was a perfect example of contact being the most important thing in that moment. There were runners on first and second and one out with Whit Merrifield coming up to the plate. Obviously a hit was important, but the one thing he couldn’t do was leave a runner on second without moving him up in some way. His ability to make contact with the pitch he did is something that he may or may not have done last year or without a quick refresher course at the end of spring, but we know he did in this one.
I do think the strikeout rate of 10.5 percent is at least close to real and the walk rate of 10.5 percent might be too given his history in the minors. His BABIP is going to go down, but he’s seen his hard hit rate rise and his average exit velocity go up quite a bit in the early part of this season. He’s far more consistently seeing his exit velocities in the upper-80s and low-90s than he did last season and his batted ball profile is starting to look a lot more like Merrifield’s than it has before. While he doesn’t have the strength that Merrifield does, that’s a good thing for sure.
He’s done this before, in some ways. When he first came up, Lopez was hitting .324/.405/.405 after his first nine games. Then he hit .231/.261/.316 the rest of the way. So no, I’m not saying this is the beginning of Lopez being a star. But it feels like he’s figured something out to the point that he can be a serviceable part of a team by doing a much better job of leaning into who he is and what made him successful all the way up the ladder until he reached the majors. Hopefully he can continue to find himself and keep contributing both while Adalberto Mondesi is out and beyond.
Junis Was Amazing
What more can you say about the work done by Jakob Junis yesterday? He was sort of stretched out in spring, but not too terribly much and then had two one-inning outings on Saturday and Sunday to start the season before he was forced into a starting role. I figured he’d be good for three innings and maybe four if he was particularly efficient. And then he went out and threw five shutout innings with six strikeouts and just one hit allowed.
According to Baseball Savant (and they’re having some classification issues), he threw his new cutter 14 times in his 58 pitches. I think based on velocity, ti was probably 11 cutters, so I’ll use those. Indians hitters swung at those six times and missed it four times. The other two they swung at went foul. One more was called a strike. It was a difference making pitch. And even if I’m off on my assumptions of what was a cutter vs. a slider, Junis was outstanding in his first start of the year. Assuming there’s no rainouts, the Royals will need to stay on a five-man rotation now and I think Junis made a pretty good claim for that job.
Holland Needs Work
Greg Holland took the loss and looked pretty bad in doing it, struggling with both control and command. One thing I found interesting about his day is that he hadn’t worked since Thursday and I was worried about this outing from the start, given the layoff. His slider is something of a feel pitch and with five days of rest between appearances, it’s not terribly surprising he wasn’t feeling it or really anything else. While the results haven’t been bad in his career, he does walk more batters when he has more time off and generally has some command issues.
The encouraging thing from yesterday is that his velocity was fine and the movement on his pitches looked pretty sharp. I just think he needs to get a little more work in to find a groove. If he does continue to struggle, the bullpen is deep enough to give him time to work through issues, but I really believe he needs to work more regularly. This isn’t necessarily anything about the way Mike Matheny is using him. The Royals didn’t need him on Saturday or Sunday and I think that he used Jesse Hahn on Monday because he had Hahn throwing in the eighth and figured why not just get him in there? The off days are the bigger issue here and that will start to work itself out here after Friday.
Keep an eye out for today’s series preview over at Royals Review. It’s Royals vs. White Sox this weekend for a three-game set.