If we’ve learned anything about Ned Yost the last several years, it’s that he enjoys automation.
He doesn’t care for the match-ups. He likes defined roles. A sixth-inning left-hander? If he could, he would.
And so it goes for the lineup. Yost rolled through the end of September and the entire postseason with a single lineup. Just in case you don’t remember:
Escobar – SS
Aoki – RF
Cain – CF
Hosmer – 1B
Butler – DH
Gordon – LF
Perez – C
Infante – 2B
Moustakas – 3B
How could you forget? Based on what happened after Yost decided this was his batting order, that lineup should be legendary.
Seasons change, though, and players move on. Gone from the starting nine from last summer are Nori Aoki and Billy Butler. And their leaving the team has created two rather large holes in the lineup. Of course, they have been replaced by Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales. The issue for Yost is, neither one of his new bats profiles as a number two hitter. This means he will have to do some shuffling and will have to figure out a new optimum lineup.
Alcides Escobar is back at the top of the order. Despite September and October, this is less than ideal. The shortstop has 3,198 plate appearances in his career and has posted a .299 on base percentage. Naturally, the Royals will tell you he performed really well at the leadoff spot. And that is the truth. In the final 15 games, Escobar hit .375/.412/.484. Neat, except he walked three times in 68 plate appearances. That’s a 4.4 percent walk rate. That’s actually right in line with his career walk rate of 4.2 percent. It turns out Escobar’s final two weeks of the regular season was powered by a .411 BABIP.
In the postseason, Escobar continued to Escobar. Meaning, he swung the bat and made a bunch of contact. In 70 plate appearances in October, Escobar walked once. He finished with a .310 on base percentage. The Royals won a bunch of games.
With spring training rolling along, the Royals are primed to give the leadoff spot back to Escobar full-time. If you’re OK with this, that means you’re buying two weeks of games and overlooking a career that spans parts of seven seasons. That essentially means you’re on the side of the Royals. If you think this is a less than optimal idea, that means you are dismissing his torrid close to the season as a simple hot streak. It means you hope the Royals decide on Plan B before Plan A condemns the team to a place in the middle of the American League pack.
I think you can guess where I fall.
If you disagree with me, “Who would you hit leadoff?” is the question you’re asking. Totally fair. Why not Alex Gordon back at leadoff? He’s done it before and he’s done well in that role. According to Baseball Reference, his tOPS+ at the top of the order is 111. (That’s the measure of a player’s OPS+ relative to his own career. In other words, he’s performed better hitting leadoff than, say, hitting fourth, where his tOPS+ is 68.)
I don’t know why the Royals are fighting this so much. Gordon doesn’t fit the leadoff profile, but he’s accumulated more plate appearances batting first than any other spot in the order. That’s a credit to Yost for thinking outside the box. But damn, if he doesn’t want to jump right back in that box. Escobar may look like a leadoff hitter, but he makes far too many outs. It’s not always about the walks when you hit leadoff (although a 12 percent walk rate seems to be the cutoff for successful leadoff hitters) it’s about getting on base. And Escobar’s OBP is powered entirely by the base hit, meaning his success as a hitter is tied to his batting average on balls in play. That’s a dangerous cocktail. The Royals, for all their throwback offensive appeal, still lack a leadoff hitter in the vein of that 1980’s burner. The Willie Wilson type who did everything he could to get on base and then run with abandon. Jarrod Dyson is a burner for sure, but he lacks the offensive acumen. Besides, he’s a fourth outfielder. He’s not in this conversation.
The Royals see Escobar as a steady, durable and dependable player. I agree with that assessment. However, that doesn’t translate to a successful leadoff hitter. They see Gordon as a “run producer.” That’s a throwback term for RBI guy. Which is a horrible way to look at hitters in the lineup.
For this team to get the most out of their offense, they need someone more adept at avoiding outs at the top of the order. That means hitting Gordon leadoff.