Ned, Esky and the Very Occasional Leadoff Miracle
In these times of absolute misery for the Kansas City Royals, perhaps now is a good time to look back just those few short years ago when the Royals were performing magic. And perhaps nothing is as magical than the Alcides Escobar leadoff man miracle, and the man who made it happen, Ned Yost.
When Ned is older and grayer, and maybe is more realistic than feisty, he might turn to Jeff Foxworthy or another buddy, or his wife, or somebody, and say “can you freaking believe that Escobar thing really worked???!!!”.
It becomes even more relevant right now, as after the signing of Escobar by Dayton Moore, when he might well have had no baseball job, his manager has played him EVERY day despite galling lack of productivity, and a young player seen as a key to a return to relevance, who plays the same position. As I write this, Escobar is 6 for his last 74.
There is really nothing more descriptive of those golden days that weren’t so long ago, than Escobar becoming the Royals leadoff man, and when it mattered most, it actually working. We think now of how absurd it was, and it was. Not only does Escobar have a career on base percentage of .291!!!!, but hitting leadoff it’s even worse, .281!!!!
But on September 13th, 2014, after the Royals had fallen out of first place by losing 5 of 7, and their playoff chances were waning, Ned Yost found his magic bean, and inserted Escobar in the leadoff spot. Nori Aoki had generally been hitting okay there, and of course he went nuts when moved to the 2 hole spot. In his whole career Escobar, certainly not surprisingly, had hit leadoff all of forty times. This move up top was nutty, I mean Escobar hadn’t walked in a month, but it was less nutty than at maybe any other time. He was in the midst of arguably his best offensive season (2012 is the other in the running), but still. His OBP was high by his standards, but it was .307.
Of course, it worked.
The rest of the regular season Escobar hit .362 with an OBP of almost .400. He didn’t go crazy in the postseason, but still Alcides hit in all but two of the fifteen postseason games, and had seventeen hits, and hit over .300 in the World Series.
Now entrenched as the leadoff hitter, he returned to making it look like absurdity again all year long in 2015, as he posted a .296 on base percentage, and despite batting leadoff for what was a pretty good offense that year, he scored a measly 74 runs. But somewhere along that tepid offensive year, he started to get the idea, aided and abetted by teammates, that if he swung at the first pitch of the game, the Royals would win. It certainly was as absurd as the whole enterprise, but since the Royals won a lot, there were numbers to back it up.
There were also, however, clear reasons to abort. Escobar staggered down the stretch (of course he was playing every single day, like he still does). From August 1st on, his OBP was .267. But it wasn’t much noticed, and didn’t much matter, since the Royals were cruising to the division title by a mile. But they did go 10–18 in September.
But alas, there were four regular season games in October before the real fun started, and the Royals sharpened up by winning all four, and Escobar had hits in every one. Not like Ned was going to pull the plug anyway, but if he had any doubts, they surely were assuaged.
Then came the most magic month in Royals history. There were other amazing anomalies, like Eric Hosmer driving in 17 runs in 16 games despite just two extra base hits, a .212 batting average and an Escobarish OPS of .524. But that was that other Escobar, not the doppelganger who slipped into his uniform for this magic postseason.
After going hitless in the first game against Houston, he never did again, a fifteen game hitting streak with six multi-hit games, eight extra base hits including a home run, a .329 average with an .861 OPS. He was his same lovable self only in the fact that he never walked once. He was virtually Honus freaking Wagner as the Royals rampaged all the way to the parade.
Escobar also created my opportunity to make an appearance (well, my voice anyway) in the official World Series film when I pointed out to Noah Syndegard that Escobar had openly guaranteed that he would continue to swing at the first pitch, and somehow people were obliging him by throwing strikes. What would Syndegard do???? “I’ve got something for him” said Syndegard. He did, buzzing the tower on the first pitch, actually one of the few highlights of the Series for the Mets.
Esky Magic was only a fleeting thing, but it was so head-scratchingly beautiful. In 2016, his leadoff work (OBP .269) was bad enough that he actually somehow got Ned to take him out of there, surviving only half the season up top as he joined many of his mates in a disappointing .500 followup to the title.
Ned only gave him slightly over 100 at bats in 2017 in the leadoff spot, and he tripled down on how serendipitous his blissful October 2015 days were by posting a mind-numbing .171 OBP at the top of the order. He clearly was a declining offensive player from a low base, and his defense, solid but always overrated, was also slipping.
It seemed so certain he would join the mass exodus of the core of the great 2015 squad, but the market, and the doting loyalty of his manager and GM somehow had him back in 2018. You almost can’t blame Ned. There were so many examples of Yost’s blind certainty, much of which was proved at least in part right. But no greater one than his idea that Escobar was the invaluable engine to his offense. Ninety eight percent of the time it was the work of a madman, but ohhhhhh that two percent.
Added in was the fact that Escobar remains a wonderful, if enigmatic, story. Shy and speaking almost no English, we watched him grow as a person, work his way through braces to smile brightly, striving so hard to speak English credibly, and, damn, show up every day and play.
It’s even crazier now. Adalberto Mondesi is up full time, but Escobar has still played short more than him. And when he hasn’t ole Ned has found somewhere to play him and keep baseball’s longest playing streak alive. There is NO justification for it, but it does at least give Royals fans a wistful feeling to see that guy, who nobody else really embraced but them, out there…….always.