By In Stuff

Dear Ned Yost: Please Hit Escobar Ninth

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:

  1. Kimbrel pitching to Alex Gordon with the game on the line.

  2. 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.

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29 Responses to Dear Ned Yost: Please Hit Escobar Ninth

  1. Kansas City says:

    It is hard to believe, but I honestly don’t think Yost is smart emough to understand much of his. Putting Escobar second instead of 9 will give him 144 more plate appearances over the course of a season. To give 144 extra appearances to a 280 OBP guy is beyond stupid. I think Yost would look at you with a blank look on is face if you tried to explain it to him.

    • David says:

      What’s really shocking about that, I think, is that if Escobar makes out 72% of the time, 144 extra PAs is 104 outs. That’s four complete GAMES of outs. It’s like Yost is handing four shutouts to their opponents, if you’d care to think of it that way. Like Joe says, it’s not a big deal over the long haul – a few runs here or there. But it’s a number of runs commensurate with a few games worth of wins. And that’s really rough when you’re on the verge of breaking out, as these Royals are supposed to be.

    • However, the player you move to that second spot will also make outs in those 144 plate appearances. Presuming that new batter can reach base at a 35% clip, instead of Escobar’s terrible 28%, that will save only ~10 outs in those 144 PA. So that’s about a third of one game, not FOUR games of outs.

      Note I do not condone batting Escobar in the second spot. It’s still illogical; but not as crazy as wasting four complete games of outs.

  2. invitro says:

    When I was 10 years old, I believed that the ideal #2 hitter was a player with a .290 BA, stole 25 bases, and played 2B or SS. I believe that almost all “baseball people” believe this too, regardless of age or experience. I believe Ned Yost is a typical “baseball person”. Escobar’s 2012 stats are: .293 BA, 35 SB, plays SS. Thus, it would be surprising if Yost did -not- think Escobar was a solid #2 hitter.

    Whether Escobar actually is a solid #2 hitter is immaterial to Yost and other “baseball people”. What matters is how closely Escobar matches up to the conventional baseball wisdom idea of a #2 hitter.

    I share Joe’s frustration. I wish he would either realize or say that “baseball people” just are not intelligent people, and in fact are anti-intelligence. I wish more people, people besides Bill James, would say this. It is harsh, but to me, absolutely true.

    I also wish people that really do know baseball (like Joe and most readers of this blog) would realize that using logic, mathematics, and statistics is not going to convince “baseball people” of the truth, because “baseball people” simply do not use logic, mathematics, or statistics, at least when the results they produce are in conflict with conventional baseball wisdom.

    • Ian R. says:

      There are some “baseball people” who understand the importance of hitting a guy with a high OBP near the top of the order, though. Manny Acta comes to mind.

      I think we’ll see a shift to more logical lineup construction as old-school managers continue to retire and a younger generation starts to take their place.

  3. jim louis says:

    GREAT blog Joe. I was very frustrated last night how the 9th unfolded.

    Moose led off with a VERY good at bat, forcing a full count and not swinging on a decent ball 4 temptation. Lough fake bunted on pitch 1, then got rewarded on pitch 2 with a fastball over the plate and he laced it to right. Moose went to 3rd with ease.

    It was looking like SMART baseball. The Royals might win this game!

    Then Johnson swung at the first pitch that bounced a foot in front of the plate (facepalm and hope fading). He struck out of course. Dyson took a first pitch fastball down the pipe, setting up another ugly strike out.

    For a brief second, my hope candle was still flickering ’cause I was still in “Hosmer’s our #2 batter” mind-set”. Then I remembered ol’ Ned moved Esky back to #2.

    Last night’s loss was SO Royals. Sigh.

  4. mike says:

    Invitro’s comment is right on. Much of this debate can be reduced to jocks vs nerds. How many players an managers, I wonder, went to college, graduated from college, or can understand basic principles of statistics? Very few, I’d guess.

  5. mike says:

    Invitro’s comment is right on. Much of this debate can be reduced to jocks vs nerds. How many players an managers, I wonder, went to college, graduated from college, or can understand basic principles of statistics? Very few, I’d guess.

  6. Gene says:

    When I first started following baseball (Cardinals) in the early 1970’s Lou Brock hit leadoff and Ted Sizemore hit second. The conventional wisdom in the STL media at the time was that Sizemore was a fantastic #2 guy because “he could handle the bat and was willing to swing at a pitch with Brock on base.” Of course Brock was stealing a shit ton of bases in those days. My adolescent self just kind of adopted that definition of a #2 hitter because hey, all these baseball guys and sportswriters knew what they were talking about, right? Well, only years later did I realize that the strategy was, more than anything else, a strategy for getting Lou Brock to 2nd base. A nice thing, of course, and Brock was and is one of my fave all-time players and I do love stolen bases, but did it help win more ballgames, which is the REAL point? I’m not so sure, I’d have to analyze those teams a little more to see what I think the best strategy would be. The point is that I think I’m pretty smart and thoughtful about baseball, but I adopted one axiom of lineup construction more or less by default and it persisted for a very long time. I’m actually grateful to Tony LaRussa for changing my thinking; he was one of the first managers I saw that broke that “rule” about identifying a #2 hitter.

    • Well Red Schoendienst (manager of those early 70s Redbirds) kind of fit the bill as a #2 hitter himself, so I am sure he saw something of himself in Sizemore. Actually, looking at Sizemore’s record, his problem was not patience or strike zone recognition (he had 68 walks in 1973 and 70 in 1974), it was that he couldn’t hit at all (zero power and high BA for the Cardinals of .282 in 1973, when his OBP was .365 and he probably was a decent #2 hitter, but most of the time his BA was somewhere in the .250 to .260 range.) And maybe old Red wasn’t as dumb as you thought, because in Sizemore’s last year with the Cardinals, when his BA dropped to .240 and his OBP under .300, although Sizemore was the #2 hitter almost exclusively in the first half of the season, by the 2nd half of the year, Red was trying Bake McBride (.300/.354/.404) and Willie Davis (.291/.319/.431) in that spot.

  7. olderholden says:

    I can’t source the quote, but I recall it as Earl Weaver saying (something like), “A good manager can win you three games a year, but a bad one can lose you 20.”

  8. DJM says:

    I think Rob Neyer said it best today when he said that at this point it’s OK for Yost to do as many crazy things as possible, because it means he’ll be fired sooner.

  9. Will H. says:

    These are all – unsurprisingly – excellent articles, but could you maybe expand beyond so much on the Royals? I know they’re your team, but I’m sure your great blend of narrative and analysis would be great to see applied at least as much to other teams.

  10. Mark Daniel says:

    I think last night’s game was a perfect illustration of the point you are trying to make about the manager’s in game strategy not necessarily having a big effect.

    It was the bottom of the 10th, tie game, Royals at the plate. Leadoff single by David Lough, followed by a sac bunt by Miguel Tejada. So, man on 2nd, one out, and Alex Gordon (leadoff hitter) due up.
    On deck is Alcides Escobar. Do you walk Gordon? After all, he’s hitting well and the guy you are worried about is Lough on 2nd, not Gordon on 1st. And, men on 1st and 2nd sets up a force play at 3rd and 2nd. And, men on 1st and 2nd sets up a double play, which would be nice considering the fact that there is one out. AND, Escobar is on deck.
    The Braves choose to pitch to Gordon, he singles and the Royals win.
    Questionable decisions by one manager can be overshadowed by questionable decisions by the other manager.

    • Cristina says:

      Of course that was a different situation and despite Escobar’s many DPs this year, he really isn’t that much of a DP threat, so walking Gordon again means that you are banking on getting both Escobar and Hosmer out. And he had a left handed pitcher on the mound, which I would assume increases Escobar’s worth as a batter


    • clashfan says:

      Don’t confuse the intelligence of a decision with the result. An intentional walk is almost always a lousy play.

    • Steve O says:

      And last night it might have been the right play.

      I know people here have a visceral hatred of the IBB. I know Joe has it. I don’t. It’s a strategy, like any other. Strategies aren’t designed to work 100% of the time, they’re designed to play the odds.

      A lot of IBBs are stupid. I think walking the Royals best/2nd best hitter (depends what you think of Butler) to get to Alcides Escobar is a good decision.

  11. Mark Daniel says:

    Cristina, right, that’s the point. Walking Gordon might not have worked. Or it might have. You needed to get two guys out regardless. And one of them probably had to be Escobar. So do you face Gordon (.293/.350/.424) and Escobar with a man on 2nd, or Escobar and Hosmer (.271/.326/.381) with men on 1st and 2nd? I would have chosen Escobar/Hosmer. I could be wrong. Or I could be right.

  12. Joe you missed the beauty of letting Escobar bat 2nd, and Yost displayed it in the very first inning of the same game. After the Braves allowed Gordon to get to 2nd on his own, Escobar promptly laid down a sacrifice, moving him to third with one out. AND it worked, well, it sort of worked. I mean, Gordon didn’t actually score because he was thrown at home on Hosmer’s grounder, but Hosmer eventually scored, so they did get the one run they were playing for in the 1st inning, so yeah, we can definitely say it worked.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Current logic says bunting is giving away an out and not the best move, especially in the first inning at the top of the order. This only says that, if having Escobar bunt is a good move, then having him at the top of the order is a bad move. You should have someone in the two slot that can hit the ball and get on base. Someone you would never consider having bunt… at least in the first inning (later in the game may make more sense in a close ball game). Definitely you will take a productive out if it comes to that, but you want a hit or a walk. I understand that the Royals options are limited, but if you are bunting with the second batter of the game, something is wrong with the lineup.

  13. Mark says:

    Hey, don’t be too upset with Yost and the strange moves. When the Royals finally start to win big he ain’t going to be around anyway.

  14. Eli says:

    Isn’t this all just a further indictment on the Royals current roster? Someone *has* to hit 2nd (and 1st, 3rd, etc.) so at some point your going to have a player (or in the Royals case 5 to 7 players) in a key spot of your lineup with a sub-.320 OBP. If you keep Hosmer in the 2nd spot, then who bats 3rd where ideally you have someone with a healthy OBP AND some pop? Pretty soon, if you’re Yost, you’ve run out of play-able hitters and you’ve got 5 spots left to fill in the lineup.

    Yost hitting Escobar 2nd is not the problem for the Royals. It’s a symptom of the other various problems (well documented by JoePo) of poor scouting, drafting, player development, coaching of plate discipline, etc.

    (Full disclosure: I’m not a Royals fan or even follower so it’s easier to be less emotional about the decision.)

    • Rob Smith says:

      Now, I know little about the Royals, but a quick peek at their stats shows that Escobar has one of the lowest OBP of their starters. So, just about anyone else would be a better choice for the two slot. Hosmer, Cain, Perez all get on base much more often. Now, I know they most likely don’t fit the mold of a fast runner who can bunt and hit and run. But, especially in the A.L, teams don’t really steal or hit and run very often these days. The most stolen bases on the team is 11, by Escobar. So, it’s nice that Escobar can run, but in that he’ll only steal about 20 bases and won’t really hit and run (and shouldn’t be asked to bunt that often), you don’t need him or want him in the two hole.

    • Rob Smith says:

      The one thing I’ll say, is that there is a comfort factor in hitting certain places in the lineup. Some guys seem to fit the first or second slot statistically, but if they are expected to change their approach (i.e. take more pitches than they normally would) then it’s not a fit. The Braves tried Heyward at two and three, but he seems more comfortable hitting fifth or sixth. Freeman fits like a glove batting third. So, you go with that. So, maybe it’s not so much that Escobar is good at hitting second, but that nobody else really is comfortable hitting there. It sounds like Hosmer did well there and the team won a few games. So, I don’t know if Hosmer prefers hitting third or Yost is just being stubborn, but it does sound like Hosmer might be the best fit. There is nothing wrong with having Gordon leadoff followed by Hosmer, which assures them lots of extra ABs, and possible key late game ABs…. i.e. a couple of nights ago with the key AB went to Escobar and, matched up against a closer like Kimbrel, had no chance. If it works with Hosmer batting second, they should stick with it.

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