In most jobs, there is some sort of base level competency that is required to keep said job. A lot of requirements are universal: come to work on time, don’t steal money from your employer, don’t harass people.
There are, of course, some specific skills that specific jobs require specific prerequisites to even accomplish the job. You must be able to drive a vehicle in order to be an Uber driver. You must be able to maintain a high level of instrumental skill to be a professional symphony violinist. To work for a reputable journalistic outlet, you must actually create your content without plagiarizing others.
To be employed on a Major League Baseball team’s front office or baseball operations department, there are a few base competencies that you must exhibit. One of these is a fundamental understanding of how numbers work. It is not entirely clear that the Kansas City Royals have that particular competency.
Let’s establish a few facts that support this particular conclusion.
First, that the Royals are not trying to tank. They are doing this badly this season by accident. Sam Mellinger at the Kansas City Star reported in June that the Royals front office was “stunned” at how bad the team has been, having internally projected the Royals to win 25 more games than their current pace suggests. In July, General Manager Dayton Moore gave an interview on MLB Network Radio where he lamented the state of the organization:
“I’m embarrassed the way our major-league team has performed. OK? I didn’t necessarily expect us to be in the playoffs this year, but I didn’t expect us to be on pace to lose 100-plus games,” Moore said. “That’s embarrassing to me personally, it’s embarrassing to our organization. Mr. Glass doesn’t expect that, either, and so we’ve got to do a better job of that. ...
“(Former Tigers general manager) Bill Lajoie told me this a long time ago: major-league players aren’t paid to play, they’re paid to win. And so it’s our responsibility to get players on this major-league team that understand that and they have to go out and compete.”
Second, that Moore and owner David Glass are concerned about payroll. It’s not hard to find a quote from someone in the front office about how much money the Royals bled due to payroll costs. Just last offseason, Moore estimated that the Royals lost between $65 million and $68 million over 2016 and 2017.
This bears out in their trades before the July 31 deadline. Rather than pay Kelvin Herrera’s remaining $4.4 million, the Royals shunted that money to the Washington Nationals, thereby receiving a lesser return than they would have if Kansas City paid the salary. Thanks to more reporting Mellinger, the Royals are still actively looking to shed payroll. This was punctuated this week, when the Royals traded speedster Terrance Gore to the Chicago Cubs for simple cash money.
Third, that on base percentage and slugging percentage are important. On base percentage, or OBP, was the primary weapon of Oakland Athletic’s GM Billy Beane back in the late 1990s/early 2000s Moneyball days. A team with a perfect OBP will score an infinite amount of runs. The same is not true for batting average, runs batted in, stolen bases, or most other traditional offensive statistics. Slugging percentage (SLG) is also very important. A team with a higher SLG will convert players into runs more efficiently than other teams with lower SLG. OBP is the more important one, as each point of OBP is 1.8 times as valuable as a point of SLG, but both are vital to a potent offense. These are basic facts that every baseball operations employee should understand.
Fourth, that by giving Alcides Escobar more and more plate appearances, they are willingly giving him more money. Per Cot’s Contracts, Escobar has 20 separate performance bonuses based on plate appearances, each awarding Escobar $75,000; totaled, the bonuses add up to an additional $1.5 million on top of his $2.5 million base salary. These plate appearance bonuses trigger regardless of the quality of said plate appearances, and the Royals knew both these factors as soon as Escobar inked the deal. Escobar reached his 13th plate appearance bonus just this week.
Fifth, that Escobar has been one of the worst players in baseball. Simple OBP and SLG tell as much of the story as you need to know. Escobar’s 2018 OBP of .255 is second-worst among all qualified players, and his OBP of .275 since 2016 ranks absolute last among all qualified players as well. Escobar’s 2018 slugging percentage ranks last among all qualified hitters as well (since 2016, it has been second-to-last).
- The Royals aren’t trying to tank
- Kansas City is looking to cut payroll
- High OBP and SLG are good
- More Escobar plate appearances results in more owed money
- Escobar’s OBP and SLG are very, very bad
And yet Escobar, curiously, continues to accumulate plate appearances—like last night, where in a one-run game he ended the bottom of the ninth with a three-pitch strikeout.
Escobar is extraordinarily bad. By continuing to play him, the Royals are actively losing more baseball games, which is not what Moore and the organization wants to do. By continuing to play him, the Royals are also voluntarily and repeatedly dipping into their thin stash of monetary resources.
This leads to the logical conclusion that the Royals do not understand how numbers work. At the very least, they do not understand how OBP, plate appearances, and baseball contracts function in relation to their goals of trying to not lose baseball games. If that does not sound like traits a baseball organization should have, then that would be correct.
The Escobar Debacle may not have particularly large ramifications. So far, its negative consequences are more or less limited to Adalberto Mondesi seeing less playing time than he should have so far as well as a degradation in playing time for Hunter Dozier, who has not been particularly inspiring. Well, that and $1.5 million—$4 million, if you’re counting the initial $2.5 million that Escobar was not worth to begin with—but such a figure still isn’t particularly egregious for an MLB club. Furthermore, nothing Escobar or the Royals do would change season from being a lost one.
But the problem with the Royals’ love affair with Escobar is not the consequences. It is with the reasoning behind the consequences. What a baseball team does has implications about its intentions and its values.
And the implications are not at all good. It is possible that the Royals can’t comprehend the meaning of simple numbers. But it isn’t likely. What’s more likely is that Moore and the front office are simply lying to fans and the media about attempting to compete. They knew that the fanbase would rightly reject such a historically inept season if it was clear it was purposeful. It’s easier, as they say, to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. It’s easier to spend some collected goodwill on an explanation based on shame and a vow to do better than to spend it on selling the Royals on losing.
The most likely reason might be the worst. That the Royals know Escobar is bad. That they know giving him plate appearances is just giving away money. That they are trying to win. In this scenario, Escobar is on the roster and racking up plate appearances over the more worthy due to pure arrogance and hubris: because the organization has an emotional, nostalgic connection to what he used to be, and through an extension, the organization.
Nostalgia is good for the fans. It is not for a coaching staff or front office. That memo has not yet reached Kansas City.