Baseball managers, it seems to me, have it rougher than the coaches and managers of other sports. They are, in so many ways, prisoners of chance. The perfect pinch-hitter at the perfect time still fails most of the time. The lousiest reliever will, most often than not, get the out. A stupidly constructed lineup might score 12 runs one day, a brilliantly constructed one might get shut out the next. The in-game moves simply don’t impact the game the way they can in other sports, and the best baseball managers probably do their best work behind closed doors away from everything.
Sparky Anderson always said the best game he ever managed he lost … and I think that’s pretty representative.
So I don’t think that Royals manager Ned Yost’s insistence on hitting Alcides Escobar second in the lineup is all that important in the grand scheme of things. It’s not even important in the shrimpy scheme of things. We’re talking a handful of runs at most … we’re talking a one or two game swing at most … we’re talking a Kansas City Royals team that is four games under .500 ...
It just drives me crazy because it’s so bleeping illogical.
First off, Alcides Escobar is a very good baseball player. He’s a dynamic and excellent defensive shortstop who makes highlight players several times a week, and he’s not an offensive zero by any means. He’s pretty fast, and he hit .293 last year, and he will hit the occasional extra-base hit. He’s the kind of guy a team can win with, assuming the rest of the team is pretty good.
He is not, however, much good at getting on base. And this skill is the single most important one for an offensive player. Don’t … make … outs. In more than 2,000 plate appearances, Escobar has a .303 career on-base percentage. Even last year, when he got hit lucky (his .344 average on balls in play is simply unsustainable), he walked only 27 times and had a barely league average on-base percentage.
This year, as he has been relatively hit unlucky (a .273 average on balls in play), his on-base percentage is a hideous .280.
Escobar’s talents are obvious. So are his deficiencies. He doesn’t walk. He does not handle the bat well (100 strikeouts last year), he does not avoid the double play (14 last year, 10 already this year), he is so clearly and obviously a bottom of the lineup hitter that it should be his middle name.
So why does Ned Yost insist on hitting him second?
This is where it gets tricky -- and why it’s hard to be a baseball manager. We can talk about the statistical absurdity of hitting Escobar second (and will in just a second) but it might not have anything at all to do with strategy. As mentioned above, a big part of a manager’s job is to do things behind closed doors that they can’t talk about, that fans can’t know about, that are more about management than baseball. We do know that Escobar believes, against all available evidence, that he should be a No. 2 hitter, and it is one of the jobs of any manager to try and keep the best employees motivated and enthusiastic. I have no idea about the inner dynamics here. I do know that Escobar is an important player for Kansas City. This might be a case of a manager simply biting the bullet and making a slightly detrimental move for the greater good.
And this is why it’s hard to be a manager -- because all the rest of us see is the detrimental part. On June 5, the Royals -- this is after losing 19 of the previous 24 games when they had Escobar hitting second -- moved Eric Hosmer from the middle of the lineup into the No. 2 spot. They won. The next night they had Hosmer in the No. 2 spot and Escobar in the No. 9. They won again. For a couple of weeks with that lineup they played well.
Now, let’s be clear: The lineup construction had almost nothing to do with them playing well. They still struggled to score runs just like they have all year. Lineup construction just doesn’t matter that much. But at least it MADE SENSE. And it had some benefits. As predicted in various places including here, Hosmer, given a new look from the No. 2 spot, seemed to relax and he started to hit the ball hard again (while in the No. 2 spot, Hosmer hit .328/.387/.537).* And Escobar’s offensive struggles just fit better in the No. 9 spot. Like I say, at least made sense. When you are a Royals observer, you live for sensible decisions.
*It just so happened that leadoff hitter Alex Gordon at the same time went into a death-defying slump -- but so goes baseball, especially in Kansas City.
So, right, you knew the sensible couldn’t last. When the Royals went on a little losing streak, Yost took the opportunity to put Escobar back at the top of the lineup -- leading him off one game, the settling him back into the No. 2 spot -- and Yost’s explanation (“I like Esky in the two, I think our lineup is best with him in the two,” he said) did not comfort the soul. How could anyone think hitting a player with career .300 on-base percentage second in the lineup makes ANYTHING better is confounding beyond words. Then again, does he really think that? Who knows?
I watched the Royals’ Tuesday night game against Atlanta with the expectation that something would happen to highlight the absurdity of hitting Escobar second. That’s just how it goes with Kansas City. And so it went. In the ninth inning, the Royals trailed by a run and had runners on first and third with nobody out. Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel as on the mound, though, so three consecutive strikeouts wasn’t just a possibility but the betting favorite in Vegas.
Elliot Johnson came to the plate. He’s a career .224 hitter. Yost let him hit away. He struck out.
Jarrod Dyson came to the plate. He’s a career .254 hitter -- with about a quarter of his career hits of the infield variety. Yost let him hit away too. He struck out.
We can discuss the decision to let them both hit at a later date.
That brought up leadoff hitter Alex Gordon … and a rare, rare, rare situation where I could actually see the value and wisdom of the intentional walk. In this case, Gordon’s run was of no significance. If the two runs on base scored (and, after a stolen base, they were now on second and third), the Royals won. So this was a simple case of:
Kimbrel pitching to Alex Gordon with the game on the line.
Kimbrel pitching to Alcides Escobar with the game on the line.
Um, yeah, you know what, I’m going to go with Option B on that plan, OK? The only disadvantage to walking Gordon was that it would load the bases, meaning that a walk would score the tying run. But Alcides Escobar doesn’t walk. That’s the whole point here. I was shocked when Kimbrel threw two actual pitches to Gordon before intentionally walking him (both were well out of the strike zone, so my guess is they were just fishing for Gordon to get himself out).
Yost let Escobar hit, of course. You’re not going to move the guy up to the top of the lineup and then pinch-hit for him in that situation. Yost let him hit, and he blooped a harmless fly ball to right field, and the Royals lost. And deep down, I know it’s hard being a baseball manager … deep down I know these decisions are more complicated than they appear publicly … deep down I know the Royals did not lose BECAUSE they hit Escobar second … deep down I know that if Escboar’s bloop had been on a slightly lower trajectory it would have scored two runs and the Royals would have won the game.
I also know that there are 10,000 more important and interesting and baffling things happening right now, my Twitter page is exploding, Texas legislature, Supreme Court decisions, Aaron Hernandez, Brian Cashman, Doc Rivers… I just wish the Royals would just hit Escobar ninth so at least there would be just a little bit less randomness in the world.