Esky Magic Has Worn Off

This is a follow-up post that could practically write itself. Last year, the Kansas City Royals won the World Series in spite of (because of?) weak-hitting shortstop Alcides Escobar leading off each and every game and almost always swinging at the first pitch, even when the opposition was nearly certain it was coming. It became a thing. Broadcasters talked about it every game, we all laughed about it on Twitter, and the Royals rallied around the idea that they’d win as long as Escobar went after that first pitch. He kept doing it, and they kept winning, and I honestly believe that plenty of rational people (myself included, I think) legitimately began questioning whether magic — specifically, Esky Magic — might be real.

And as long as Escobar (inexplicably?) continued to lead off for the Royals this season, his first-pitch tendencies would be worth a review at some point in the year. Escobar has continued to lead off, and so his first-pitch tendencies are worth a review at some point in the year. This is that point.

We check in first on our subject. Escobar, predictably, has been a bad hitter. His wRC+ is 67, which is both one of the worst marks in baseball and also alarmingly close to his career average and rest-of-season projection. Just among leadoff hitters, only three have been worse at the top of the lineup; one of those guys exclusively hits in the bottom of the lineup now, one plays intermittently and only against opposite-handed pitching, and the other never had a chance to course-correct his slow start to the season due to a PED suspension. Escobar has not missed a game all year, and has led off every one of them.

And so one of Royals’ worst hitters has received more plate appearances than any other player on the roster, including 20 more than their best hitter, Eric Hosmer. That seems less than ideal.

Except, last year, it “worked.” And the Royals rolled with it. Of course, nobody actually believed that there was causation between Escobar swinging at the first pitch and the Royals winning, but at one point in late October, a team with a .586 winning percentage overall somehow had a .712 winning percentage when Escobar went up hacking to lead off a game, so at the very least, whenever someone wondered why Escobar was leading off, we could just cite that stat and laugh it off. Whatever dude, it’s working. Plus, they won the whole dang thing, so who really cares. This year, the Royals are 10-15 in games when Escobar swings at the first pitch, and 14-7 when he does not. The handwave no longer applies.

But that’s all just the silliness. What’s actually meaningful is how Escobar’s first-pitch tendencies have evolved, and whether pitchers have adjusted. The pitching side of things, in particular, was what most had my attention during last year’s playoffs. When I looked at all of this during the ALCS, Escobar had yet to receive anything other than a first-pitch fastball (plus a pesky R.A. Dickey knuckleball), and the catchers were setting up middle-middle every time. On the one hand, it seemed like the pitchers had a vital piece of information — Escobar is incredibly likely to swing here — that they could use against him by expanding the zone or throwing a breaking ball when he was so clearly sitting first-pitch fastball. On the other, it’s Alcides Escobar we’re talking about, and so maybe the pitchers just didn’t care.

Anyway. Question one: how have Escobar’s first-pitch swing tendencies evolved? We start with last year. In 2015, Escobar led off 131 games in the regular season, and started 57 of those games with a first-pitch swing. That’s 44% of the games. It’s a high number, but it wasn’t the highest number. Billy Burns, Erick Aybar and Anthony Gose all had higher first-pitch swing rates during the regular season. In the playoffs, though, we know that Escobar turned things way up. So, has it carried over? This year, there’s been 46 games. Escobar’s led off every time. In those 46 games, 25 swings. That’s 54%. A higher number than last year, and the very highest number of anyone this year! Esky took what worked in the playoffs and has carried it over. Obviously, it’s nowhere near the 90% rate we saw in the postseason, but nobody would reasonably expect that, and it’s the second-largest increase of any leadoff hitter from last year to this one, and it’s coming from someone who was already pretty so extreme.

Question two: how’s it working? Let’s look at a couple basic metrics. Of Escobar’s 25 swings, 13 have earned him a first-pitch strike, by means of either a foul ball (11) or swinging strike (2). Of the 12 balls that Escobar’s put in play, he’s got hits on just three of them, all three being singles. In other words, his OPS, which should improve substantially on first-pitch swings, is more than 100 points worse than his already well below-average OPS. Broaden the sample to include all first-pitch swings — not just first-inning first-pitch swings — and that .500 OPS gets even worse. It’s a laughably small sample, of course — 30 balls in play when looking at all innings — but the whole point here is that Escobar really shouldn’t be leading off in the first place, but that it was difficult to argue with last year’s results (.841 OPS) when he swung at the first pitch. It’s very easy to argue with this year’s results.

So, last piece of the puzzle: the pitchers. The confusing part last year was that Escobar was clearly sitting first-pitch fastball, getting first-pitch fastballs, and hitting them. Escobar is a fastball hitter, and so it only made sense to give him less of those. Any change?

  • 2015, all first pitches: 59% fastballs,
  • 2016, all first pitches: 53% fastballs
  • 2015, first-inning first pitches: 90% fastballs
  • 2016, first-inning first pitches: 72% fastballs

The league has adjusted. Escobar’s 72% leadoff first-pitch fastball rate is the lowest of any hitter in baseball who’s led off at least 20 games this year.

Alcides Escobar is still a poor hitter, and he’s still leading off for a contending team. He’s still swinging at a ton of first pitches, except this year, those swings haven’t worked. They haven’t worked for Escobar, and they haven’t worked for the Royals. He’s still sitting first-pitch fastball, except this year, he’s not getting them. Alcides Escobar as a leadoff hitter never made much sense, but it was fun while it was working. It doesn’t seem so fun anymore.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Shauncore
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If you sort the 2016 leaderboard by PA one name stands out (batter then wRC+)

Mookie Betts 115
Adam Eaton 117
Jose Altuve 158
George Springer 128
Paul Goldschmidt 128
Denard Span 102
Alcides Escobar 67
Jose Bautista 137

Most guys getting this many PA are 60-80% better hitters…

Bjd1207
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Bjd1207

That leaves out the terrible-ness that has been the Nats leadoff position because Revere came off the DL so neither him nor Taylor is qualified anymore. But if you combine the 2, that’s 210 PA’s with a 48 wRC+ between them, making even Escobar look like a legitimate table setter

Shauncore
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At least Taylor has gotten some time outside of the leadoff spot. Escobar has batted leadoff in 192 of his last 210 games, dating back to 2014.