Alcides Escobar is the current Royals leadoff hitter. This is a very bad choice.
On Thursday, Escobar went 3-5 with two runs scored and three driven home. That’s a pretty complete day. But if we’ve learned anything from our blog journey through Royals fandom, it’s damn the small sample sizes. If the timing of the post is curious to you after Escobar’s successful day at the plate, it shouldn’t be.
Here are four reasons Escobar is a bad choice to hit at the top of the order for the Royals.
Escobar is currently seeing 3.39 pitches per plate appearance.
That rate is the second lowest among Royals regulars. If you can’t guess the lowest, turn in your fan card. (It’s Sal.) Out of 187 qualified hitters in the major leagues, Escobar ranks 174th in working the count. He’s among other notable hackers such as Chris Owings, Alexi Ramirez, and Evan Gattis. Sure, Jose Altuve is also down the list – he sees only 3.18 pitches per plate appearance. Like everything in baseball, there is no hard and fast rule saying that “X” attribute definitively leads to “Y” result. Let’s just point out there are more guys like Owings on the lower part of the list than guys like Altuve.
Escobar has always been a swing first, work the count never kind of hitter. While this didn’t prevent Ned Yost from pushing him as a leadoff batter, Escobar’s approach this season should be raising alarm bells. His rate of pitches seen per plate appearance has declined this year, relative to other seasons.
2011 – 3.76
2012 – 3.73
2013 – 3.48
2014 – 3.56
2015 – 3.39
Granted, this isn’t some sort of seismic shift in number of pitches Escobar is seeing, but when you move a guy from the bottom of the order where he hit for most of 2014 to the top and the number of pitches he sees declines, that feels like a fairly strong indicator that his approach has unchanged given his new situation in the lineup.
Naturally, this is an epidemic on the Royals. As a team, they are seeing 3.6 pitches per plate appearance. That’s the worst rate in the American League and only the Phillies at 3.58 P/PA are worse.
Escobar’s approach is increasingly aggressive. Too aggressive for the top spot in the lineup.
About a week ago, Escobar led off the game clubbing the first pitch he saw for a home run. He hasn’t swung at every first pitch since then, but sometimes it feels like it.
For the season, Escobar is swinging at the first pitch 30.4 percent of the time. He’s never topped a 30 percent first swing percentage in his entire career. Remember, leading off isn’t just about the start of the game. It’s about setting the table for the alleged run producers who occupy the middle of the order. Cain, Hosmer, and Gordon can’t drive in Escobar if he’s not on base. So while it would behoove Escobar to work the count as noted above, he’s going up swinging at the first pitch more this year than any time in his career. It’s a curious time for newfound aggression.
Historically, Escobar doesn’t get on base enough to hit at the top of the order.
Escobar owns a career OBP of .301. The league average during his major league tenure is .325. If the goal is to get the best hitters the most plate appearances and minimize those of the worst, the Royals are doing it wrong.
|162 Game Avg.||162||632||587||69||155||26||84||.264||.301||.351||.652||78|
But wait, you say. There are a couple of years where he’s at least close to average in on base percentage. He’s had two years where he’s almost hit triple digits in OPS+.
See if you can find a common thread to those years.
|162 Game Avg.||632||461||64||3.7||.301||.264||.301||.351||.652||78|
The years where his on base percentage is above .300 come when his BABIP is likewise above .300. BABIP is often misunderstood, but there should be no mistaking that it’s a volatile stat that has no year to year correlation. The BABIP gods giveth and the BABIP gods taketh away.
If you are building a lineup and want to get your best on base guy at the top, do you base your decision on stats inflated by secondary items that aren’t sustainable? Yeah, I thought so.
The Royals are basing Escobar leading off from a small sample size.
On September 13, 2014, Escobar owned a slash line of .264/.305/.363. He acquired this hitting mostly eighth or ninth in the order. In an effort to generate more offense down the stretch, Yost pushed Nori Aoki to second in the order, dropped Omar Infante out of the second spot and penciled in Escobar at the top. Escobar had two hits in four plate appearances and the Royals beat the Red Sox 7-1. From that moment on, Escobar hit .375/.412/.484 out of the leadoff spot as the Royals clinched a Wild Card berth. Then in the postseason, as the Royals exclusive leadoff hitter, Escobar reverted to form and slashed .292/.305/.415. His offensive performance was overlooked thanks to a few key hits and the Royals spectacular run to Game Seven of the World Series.
It seems that the 15 games in September were enough to cement Escobar’s role on the 2015 Royals. Never mind the career evidence of a .299 on base percentage through 2014. Why look at almost 3,200 plate appearances when you can focus on a random stretch of around 65?
Overall lineup construction isn’t something to sweat over, but it’s a big deal when teams bat a hitter who should bat in the lower third of the order at the top.
Last year, the number one spot in the Royals lineup came to the plate 744 times. The ninth spot came up 593 times. To dive further into the numbers, last year the Royals leadoff hitters combined to post a .339 on base percentage. I’m going to blow your mind. That was much better than the league average of .326. It also ranked second best in the American League. (Quick aside, despite success reaching base, the first spot in the batting order scored only 82 times for the Royals. That was the third worst tally in the AL.)
Meanwhile, the ninth spot in the Royals lineup posted a cumulative OBP of .273. That was well below the league average of .286.
So if you put the league average ninth place hitter in the leadoff spot, he’s going to make about 30 more outs during the season than the league average leadoff man. That’s a sizable difference.
Is Escobar 30 outs worse than any other potential leadoff man in the Royals lineup? Difficult to say, but I’d guess probably not. Escobar has posted an OBP that low only once in his career. If he finished with his career OBP of .301 the Royals would be sacrificing roughly 18 outs with Escobar at the top of the order. In the grand scheme, that’s not even a full nine innings of outs. But with outs the most precious commodity a lineup possesses, why waste them when it can be avoided?
The Royals employ several smart people who have computers and crunch numbers. I bet if we polled all of them, they would acknowledge the fallacy of basing a key decision on such a small sample size. I also bet the answer would be unanimous that Escobar does not belong in the leadoff spot.
Escobar’s current numbers are impressive. He owns a slash line of .305/.345/.419 with an OPS+ of 110. If the season ended today, all of those numbers would be career highs. It’s an impressive start and the Royals have certainly benefitted with his bat at the top of the order. However, the evidence of his approach at the plate suggests his success is going to be short-lived. The Royals have gotten lucky so far. They should be thinking of a “Plan B” as his regression is going to be rather painful and noticeable at the top of the order.