Through 159 games, we have a dead heat at the top of the American League. After a 6-4 win on Thursday by the Royals, combined with a loss by the Blue Jays in Baltimore, the two best teams in the league each have 92 wins in their account. If you place the utmost importance on home field advantage, the weekend figures to be a stressful one.
In March, I truly didn’t think the Royals would be in this position. I had them pegged for about 10 fewer wins, which would have put them in the hunt for a second consecutive Wild Card spot. Sometimes, it’s good to be wrong.
Instead, it’s the Twins in that position. Minnesota has 83 wins, which puts them in the thick of the Wild Card. They are a game back of Houston, tied with Los Angeles. It seems strange that with three games left in the season, there are multiple possible opponents for the Royals, who clinched their spot over a week ago. One thing is known: They don’t have the home field advantage tie-breaker. That goes to Toronto, who won four of the seven games played between the two teams this year. So, in order for the Royals to take home field, they will have to win at least one more game this weekend than the Blue Jays.
The Jays are in Tampa, who have been out of the race for some time, and have been statistically eliminated for about a week. This presents an interesting contrast. The Royals are playing a team battling for their October lives. The Jays are playing a team making plans to get out of town for the winter. That’s not to say the Rays will roll over. Far from it. It’s a time-honored tradition in baseball to relish the role of spoiler. Although it’s easy to wonder how amped up a team would be by the potential to knock the number one seed down to two.
The Royals have locked up at least the two seed in the playoffs, meaning they are assured they own home field in the ALDS. Right now, their opponent would be the Rangers. And it looks likely to stay that way. Their magic number in the West is down to one, meaning they would have to lose out to the Angels while the Astros would have to sweep the Diamondbacks. Yay for interleague. That would necessitate a one game playoff to determine the winner of the division.
Let me digress for a moment and go on record again: The current playoff format where the Wild Card is a single game is wonderful. That’s exactly the way it should be. I’ve seen some rumblings about making it a best of three series, but winner take all game is brilliant. By definition, the Wild Card should be stacked against the teams. They should be forced to sweat out a single game, burning their best starting pitcher, then go directly on the road to play the best team in their league. Or maybe they used their best arms to just get to the game and don’t have the luxury of setting their rotation. Whatever. I like how it’s a disadvantage to play in the game. I also like the idea of kicking off the postseason with what amounts to a play-in game. Throw some drama out there right away.
I’m not having the whining about how it’s unfair that Pittsburgh has won 96 games and deserves better. Tough. Win the division. Reap the reward. Besides, as the Royals (and the Giants) illustrated last year, it’s possible to go places after getting that first win.
Fortunately, the Royals have had the luxury of basically being assured of a spot in the postseason since August. Yes, it led to an uninspired September, but the big picture says it’s given the team time to set things up for October. I wrote on Wednesday about how the Royals have used this opportunity to set up their rotation. I also figured that the lineup we’ve seen for most of the last couple of weeks would be the one Ned Yost used come the playoffs. Except Yost did some juggling the last couple of days.
Following a stretch where the Royals scored just 10 runs in five games, Yost tossed Alcides Escobar back to the leadoff spot. Escobar had hit at the top of the order for the entire season, up until September 7, when he was moved down to ninth. At the time, Yost indicated this is how things would be for the remainder of the year. But after winning just eight of 21 games, the manager – as is his prerogative – made a switch.
Yet the idea they were struggling because they lost their “spark plug” is an absolute fallacy. No team in the American League has gotten less production from the top spot in the batting order than the Kansas City Royals.
That the Royals are fifth in the league in scoring at 4.47 runs per game is a testament to the production from their second through sixth hitters. Can you imagine how much better this offense would be if they received even league average production from the leadoff hitter? As you can see from the table above, they are a long way from that.
The above table is ranked by sOPS+. That is a number that represents the OPS+ relative to the split. Basically, it’s looking only at leadoff hitters and determining an OPS+. Rank it any way you like. It’s all pretty damning against Escobar hitting at the top of the order.
Looking at the entire table, you see that most of the playoff teams are below league average when it comes to their leadoff hitters. The Yankees, Jays, and Rangers all have sub-100 sOPS+ numbers. That’s fine. There’s certainly more than one way to win baseball games. And the Royals have certainly done most of their winning with Escobar at the top of the lineup.
This move smells like panic. The Royals, despite being one of the better offensive teams in September, are feeling the need to win games. Ignoring how brutal the pitching has been outside one or two arms last month, they decided to zero in on the lineup. They are running out of time, and figured this was the way to get the team back on track. I guess you can’t argue with the results. Since Escobar has returned to the top of the lineup, they have scored 11 runs in two games and won both. Problem solved.
Of course in those two games, Escobar has seen a total of 33 pitches in 10 plate appearances. He has reached base twice. Small sample size in these games, but that’s exactly who Escobar is at the plate.
When exiled from the top of the order, Escobar didn’t exactly set the league on fire with his bat. In 18 games, he posted a line of .239/.271/.299. Which isn’t that far from his full season numbers to date of .257/.294/.318. He’s just not a good offensive performer. Yet the Royals think he’s the “spark” of the offense. Damn.
I’ve been beating this drum all summer. I put it away, but now it’s back. Same beat. Yes, the Royals can win with Escobar at the top of the order. They did last October and they did for most of this summer. That doesn’t mean he’s the best option. The Royals are going to roll a suboptimal lineup back out for the second postseason in a row. I’m skeptical, but let’s see if it works just as good this time around.