In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter, an actual physical letter because it was 1789 and computers were two hundred years away from being a mainstream communication tool, to Jean-Baptiste Le Roy. Franklin, of course, was one of the most well-known architects of the United States, and for that his mug snugly adorns the one hundred-dollar bill. Le Roy is much less remembered by history, and though he spent a long, successful career in science he is probably best known for being on the receiving end of one of Franklin’s sharp-witted phrases in the middle of an otherwise normal letter:
Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
Nothing is certain but death and taxes became a Phrase, one with enough gravity that it gets indirectly attributed and accepted that way because, since it is neither death nor taxes, accurate crediting of such idioms is not certain to occur. Indeed, Franklin penned the phrase a good 73 years after an Englishman by the name of Christopher Bullock wrote a version of it into the play The Cobbler of Preston. But of course it gets attributed to Franklin; he’s Benjamin Franklin, and Christopher Bullock doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. So it goes.
Regardless, Franklin missed one thing in his famous phrase-now-idiom, if I might be so presumptuous as to add it. To be fair to Franklin, he could not have realistically foreseen it, even if it is true:
Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and Escobar.
Death, taxes, and Escobar. D.T.E.
Alcides Escobar, Venezuelan, shortstop, Gold Glove winner, All-Star, 2015 American League Championship MVP, and Kansas City Royals fan favorite, is in the midst of the largest active games started streak in all of Major League Baseball. He will start his 400th consecutive game tonight.
Somehow this streak is still significantly short of true historical greatness. Escobar is a full 119 games behind Hideki Matsui’s 30th-place spot to even get onto the Wikipedia article for most consecutive games played in Major League Baseball history. He needs to double his feat if he wants to break into the top ten, which is a ludicrous proposition. And as for getting close to Lou Gherig or Cal Ripken’s 2000+ consecutive games played streak, well, let’s just say that Twice a Prince was closer to Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes than Escobar will be to either of them even if he makes every single start for six more seasons.
Still. Escobar’s streak is quite a feat for a professional ball player in this day and age, and it has not gone unnoticed. Lee Judge at the Kansas City Star dispensed with this glorious nugget of information last year:
Over and over again Escobar got hit by a pitch or had a collision that made everybody think he would be out for a while, but over and over again Escobar bounced back up and kept playing. It happened so often his teammates started calling Escobar “The Shark” — no bones, just cartilage.
Of course, there’s a problem here that can easily be seen if you think for yourself for a few minutes. Starting games, playing games, is not in and of itself meaningful. If the Royals decided tomorrow to sign Paul Rudd to play center field for them, he could easily break Cal Ripken’s games played streak if the Royals were committed to doing so over an almost two-decade period. Rudd wouldn’t catch many fly balls, wouldn’t throw anybody out, and would probably strike out nine times out of...nine (probably), but if merely showing up and not getting hurt were the goal any reasonably fit person could easily do that.
Starting games, playing a lot of innings, and avoiding injury is only good inasmuch as it allows a player to maximize the impact of their talent. Like speed, it is a skill that is only important when combined with other skills. If a player isn’t a very good major league ball player (like Rudd—sorry, but you turn 50 next April) then having him available to play every day doesn’t help.
And Escobar, though an infinitely better athlete and ballplayer than pretty much anybody you could pick up off the street, just isn’t good enough to make his durability meaningful.
It’s past time denying that Escobar isn’t bad, because he is, and every other MLB team other than the Royals, apparently, know this; it’s a large part of why Escobar could only scrounge a measly, one-year deal with Kansas City for an, in MLB terms, paltry sum of $2.5 million just before pitchers and catchers started reporting to spring training.
The reasons why he’s not good are starkly clear, too, and it’s getting boring to go over them.
Escobar’s on base percentage over the last four years is .286. Bill James, the Benjamin Franklin of baseball analytics, first published his abstract in 1977. Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane began using what would become known as ‘Moneyball’ tactics around the turn of the millennium. It’s 2018. Everyone knows that on base percentage is the lifeblood of offense. Everyone can see that a .286 OBP is a truly putrid number.
Escobar’s isolated power over the last four years is .087, leading to a .341 slugging percentage. Unlike OBP, everyone has known about the importance of power for ages, and everyone can look at those figures and wince. Escobar can hit for a little power—a little. That’s why he’s in the bottom 10% of all players over the past four years.
And as far as defense, well, nobody would think that Escobar is bad at it. In fact, consensus is that he is a good defender, and that’s probably true. But it’s not like Escobar has a closet-full of Gold Gloves. For a guy with a reputation built on defense, it’s telling that he has one win and way fewer nominations than you would think. And if you’re a believer in defensive metrics like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating (which you should be), those numbers tend to underscore why he hasn’t racked up more of those awards.
This isn’t leading to some full-throated anger that Escobar is still playing and playing everyday. This isn’t some attempt to bargain hard enough in an attempt to get media pressure to Ned Yost. The Royals won a World Series in the midst of Escobar shenanigans (can you believe he hit leadoff for the 2015 World Series team? Leadoff?), so we can safely shoot right by depression in the five stages of grief.
No; were in the land of acceptance now. Alcides Escobar is going to start every day for the Royals because that’s how it is. The only thing left are questions: why? And how long?
I’m just not sure any of this matters. The Royals signed Escobar. They decided to play him everyday. Yes, Adalberto Mondesi is still the Royals’ most talented youngster, and yes, Nicky Lopez is presenting himself as a great option too, with a high average and a specific knack for walking more than he’s striking out. Both shortstops have very good defensive reputations and, by virtue of each being almost a decade younger than Escobar, have immensely more total upside. Both are read this year, too; Mondesi is ready right now.
Theoretically, it’s a perfect time to swap out Escobar for somebody. Anybody, really; Escobar’s OPS is a hot mess at .580 right now, which translates to 45% worse than league average. His offseason vow to walk more has led to...a season that’s slightly higher than what he usually runs but is not really qualitatively different than his career average. Improving upon a guy with -0.3 WAR is extraordinarily easy, especially with reasonable in-house options.
But the Royals didn’t sway from Escobar when he put up one of the worst all-time hitting seasons in 2013. In a championship year, they thought that his sub-.300 OBP was a good thing to put up at the top of the lineup. In 2016 and 2017, before The Streak gained steam, the Royals started him 162 times a year despite poor offensive production and sliding defensive performance. And in 2018, when there’s simply no reason to start the 30-year-old veteran free agent signing for every single inning at shortstop, they’ve done so.
Maybe Yost is the reason why this is happening. Maybe it’s Moore. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Escobar is bedfellows with Death and Taxes. He is eternal, for reasons unknown. The Royals could move on from him tomorrow, giving Mondesi a chance to shine. But probably not. Kansas City has given him continued playing time in wild opposition to what his performance deserves. That’s just how it is.