Alcides Escobar and the Worst At-Bat of the Playoffs

The Giants beat the Royals 7-1 last night, and in any game that lopsided, it’s going to nearly impossible to say that any one play was the cause of the outcome. The Giants just did too many things well, and the Royals too many things poorly, to pin the loss on a single play. But if we were going to isolate one mistake by Kansas City that might have had more of a difference on the outcome than any other, it may very well have been Alcides Escobar’s trip to the plate in the third inning.

Already down 3-0, the Royals entered the bottom of the third with just a 21% chance of winning, by Win Probability, and likely a bit less than that in real life, given that Madison Bumgarner is better than the average starting pitcher. But thanks to a Brandon Crawford error and a Mike Moustakas double, KC got their first two batters into scoring position, bringing up the top of the batting order with three shots to get on the board. Those two players reaching base moved the Royals win expectancy all the way up to 36.5%, so the change in WPA (.155) from the start of the inning was nearly as large as the change in WPA (-.169) on Hunter Pence’s first inning home run.

With runners at second and third with nobody out, the Royals run expectancy for that third inning was 1.91 runs. Both runners should have been expecting to score, and even great pitching by Bumgarner would probably result in at least one run. The hallmark of the Royals offense is making contact, and that’s all they really needed to do in that situation. Hit the ball up the middle or to the outfield and you get a run, most likely. Do it twice and you might get two, even without needing another base hit.

Alcides Escobar stepped to the plate. Escobar’s not a great hitter by any stretch of the imagination — he probably shouldn’t be hitting leadoff in the World Series, but the Royals offense is bad, so there aren’t many better alternatives — but he more than held his own against lefties this year, posting a .319/.342/.442 line against them that was good for a 119 wRC+. His career splits aren’t as dramatic (83 wRC+ vs LHPs, 73 vs RHPs), but Escobar isn’t totally helpless against southpaws, and his primary offensive skill is the one the Royals needed the most; make contact.

Of course, Bumgarner would be trying to counter Escobar’s contact skills, because a strikeout (or an infield fly) was the best possible result he could get in that situation. And with a runner on third base, there’s a bit of an incentive to avoid breaking balls in the dirt, lest one get away from Buster Posey and allow the run to score without the Giants even needing to swing. As Jeff noted last week, Bumgarner has lately been leaning very heavily on his fastball, and his pitch location charts note that he strongly favors throwing high fastballs, because high fastballs get a lot of swinging strikes.

Alcides Escobar, though, is very good at making contact at pitches at the top of the strike zone. Here’s his Contact% vs LHP heatmap from 2014.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 10.03.07 AM

Up-and-in, Escobar almost never swings and misses. Up-and-away, it happens, but still not a lot, unless you get it to the very outer edge of the zone. For reference, here’s Bumgarner’s Contact% vs RHB heatmap for 2014.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 10.05.55 AM

Very high contact rates up-and-in, much lower up-and-away. Bumgarner certainly knows these trends, and the approach was pretty obvious; go up-and-away with high fastballs.

First pitch

EscobarSwing (1)

94 mph fastball in the up-and-in corner, but still in the zone. Almost a perfect pitch, really, and Escobar was only able to foul it off. Tip your hat to Bumgarner; he didn’t hit the spot where Posey was setting up, but he missed into a very tough location to hit. If you’re going to miss your spots, miss them like this.

Second pitch

EscobarSwing (2)

88 mph cutter at the very top of the strike zone. This pitch is probably not called a strike, and Escobar probably shouldn’t have swung at it, but it was in that very tempting slice of the zone that hitters have a tough time laying off. This was just another tough location for Escobar, especially since it had some appearance of a hanging breaking ball, but never really dropped enough for him square up.

Third pitch

EscobarSwing (3)

94 mph fastball about as high as a pitch can be thrown and not end up at the backstop. PITCHF/x recorded the height of this pitch at 4.5 feet off the ground, or about a foot higher than the the top of the strike zone. Let’s put this in some context.

This year, Escobar was thrown 51 pitches with a recorded height of at least 4.0 feet, by PITCHF/x via Baseball Savant. Two of those hit him, three of them were pitchouts, and two more were thrown when a pitcher was issuing an intentional walk, so we can throw those seven out as non-swing-chances. That leaves 44 pitches where Escobar had to decide whether to swing or not. 37 of those times, he chose not to, and on all 37 of those takes, the pitch was called a ball.

Seven times, he swung at a pitch of that was at least 4.0 feet off the ground. Here’s how those swings went for him:

April 15th: Whiff (4.17 feet)
April 16th: Foul (4.06 feet)
April 17th: Foul (4.00 feet)
April 26th: Foul (4.56 feet)
May 2nd: Foul (4.12 feet)
July 5th: Whiff (4.15 feet)
July 18th: Foul (4.28 feet)

Seven swings, seven bad outcomes. I don’t know what his deal was in mid-April, but after some reckless swings in the first part of the season, Escobar hadn’t gone after one up here since right after the All-Star break. There was improvement at this particular weakness, at least, even if he didn’t get better overall in the second half.

But he picked a pretty lousy time to pull that old trick out of his hat. Yeah, he managed to make contact and foul it off, but a take there pushes the count to 1-2, and at least begins to move things a little bit in his direction. For his career, Escobar has a .400 OPS after 0-2 counts, but a .503 OPS after 1-2 counts. Not swinging at that pitch doesn’t make it likely he’d get a hit, but it makes it a little tougher for Bumgarner to go out of the zone again, and increases the likelihood that he could at least avoid the strikeout. But he swung, and it remained 0-2. Credit to Bumgarner for testing the limits of Escobar’s aggressiveness, but this was just an awful swing decision by the Royals leadoff hitter.

Fourth pitch

EscobarSwing (4)

93 mph fastball, just slightly lower than the previous pitch.

If he swung at the last one, might as well try again until he proves he won’t swing, right? This one wasn’t quite as high — only 4.3 feet off the ground this time — but was just as definitely not a strike, and just as definitely not a pitch Escobar should have swung at. He hadn’t swung at a pitch this high in three months, and then he did it on back-to-back pitches in an 0-2 count when a strikeout was the absolute worst outcome he could muster.

Here’s the plot of pitches in the entire at-bat.



We can’t lay all the blame on Escobar here, because Nori Aoki also struck out, and then after a walk to Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer bounced weakly to second base. Escobar wasn’t the only one who failed that inning, and even if he had driven in two runs, there’s still a strong chance they lose anyway. Plenty of things went wrong for the Royals besides Alcides Escobar’s atrocious third inning strikeout.

But that was one really awful at-bat. This postseason has had plenty of bad process/good result plays, but Escobar’s approach in that match-up was so bad that the possibility of a good outcome was almost non-existent. Bumgarner deserves a ton of credit for pitching out of that inning, but the Royals certainly didn’t have to help him as much as they did.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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That was a pretty terrible AB, but nowhere close to as bad as Perez’ when he flailed at three straight sliders (the last one not remotely close to the strike zone) with the bases loaded and one out in the play in game against OAK.