This October, just like last October, watching Alcides Escobar play for the Royals has felt like a revelation. Escobar has been electric at the top of the order for the Royals in the American League Championship Series. He has led off each of the first two games with a hit for the Royals, and he scored off his Game One leadoff double to give Kansas City a lead that they held for the entire nine innings. He has been the engine for a Royals team that pulled off an incredible comeback against Houston in the ALDS round and delivered a pair of rousing victories to open the ALCS.
It’s a continuation of an amazing trend from the regular season: When Escobar swung at the first pitch of the game, the Royals were a ridiculous 42-17 (.711). The Royals are now 4-1 when Escobar swings at the first pitch and 1-1 when he takes a pitch in the postseason; I’m willing to bet, knowing how superstitious baseball players can be, Escobar will be swinging at the first pitch the rest of the way. Just listen to Ned Yost talk about the energy Escobar’s first pitch swings give his team.
“And, I mean, there are times where he will get up there and swing at the first pitch of the game. Our guys go crazy when he does that, because our percentage in winning ball games when Eskie swings at the first pitch is huge. As soon as Eskie swings at the first pitch, you hear everybody in the dugout go: ‘We’re winning today. We’re winning today.’”
This is the kind of analysis we’re used to from Ned “Rickie is a run scorer, you guys have no concept” Yost. The Royals’ record when Escobar swings at the first pitch is a classic packaged-for-the-media statistic, something to build a story around (“the Royals are loose cannons on the edge who don’t play by the rules!”). The predictive link can’t be satisfactorily disproven, especially not when the Royals are on a run like this. Fans will be eager to buy into the story and believe their team is special. As they should — it’s incredibly fun, even if it might be more likely the team is special because they win despite their unorthodox play.
On paper, Escobar remains the same disappointing hitter the Brewers shipped out in the Zack Greinke trade four years ago. His line in five seasons with Kansas City (.264/.298/.346) is nearly identical to his work in 192 games for Milwaukee (.250/.298/.335). He rode a wave of Royals fan support into the All-Star Game but hit a brutal .220/.256/.264 with fewer hits (65) than games played (72) in the second half. His batting line is indistinguishable from Jean Segura’s over the past two years (.252/.285/.331). He’s not the one who got away, I just wish he had caught playoff fire in Milwaukee instead of Kasnas City.
In the playoffs over the past two years, Escobar is now hitting .301/.323/.441. He has been everything the scouts saw in him as a Double-A stud back in 2008, when he hit .328/.368/.434 and rocketed up top-prospect lists. He makes things happen with his speed, he makes big defensive plays, and his ability to make contact has made him a difficult out for even the American League’s best pitchers. Or at least he has for 22 playoff games, despite the fact that the 973 regular season games he has played suggest he is by far the worst regular leadoff hitter in the major leagues.
I expect at some point before this postseason ends, the Royals will pay for batting Escobar in the leadoff spot. There’ll be a ninth inning where he’s facing Roberto Osuna or Hector Rondon or Jeurys Familia with two outs and the Royals will wish they had a superior hitter like Ben Zobrist, Lorenzo Cain or Eric Hosmer up. There will be a time they’ll wish their leadoff hitter knew how to take a walk — his next postseason walk will be just his second in over 100 plate appearances. The Blue Jays already paid for this themselves when Ben Revere batted against Wade Davis with two on and nobody out in the ninth inning of game two. He struck out to end an 0-for-5 night and the game ended with Edwin Encarnacion in the on-deck circle.
But the Royals won’t change anything. And they can’t, really. Not because of what an extremely weird first pitch statistic says, but because of that energy Yost talked about that has emanated from the Royals dugout in the playoffs each of the past two years. Call it Royals Devil Magic or whatever you want. The Royals have shown they can draw power from Escobar’s indiscriminate approach at the top of their lineup, and they can rally around it. It’s the kind of energy that fuels both quick strikes and late comeback rallies, the kind of energy that makes a team believe it’s never out of a game. At this point, it seems well worth whatever minimal gain the Royals might get from dropping Escobar in the order.
I doubt what’s happening with Escobar in Kansas City could have happened in Milwaukee, because this Royals team is special. Alcides Escobar still is who he is, a light-hitting shortstop who belongs at the bottom of most batting orders. He probably wouldn’t have moved the needle much for the Brewers at all in the past few years. But intangibles like the Royals Devil Magic aren’t tidy little attributes that can be added and subtracted from a ledger. They’re the result of combinations of talent and personalities and absurd happenings like Kansas City’s record when Escobar swings on the first pitch. These moments aren’t planned, they just happen, and when they do, there’s not much else you can do but marvel at them.