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What is going on with #EskyMagic?

Is there anything to the ambush?

MLB: Kansas City Royals-Media Day Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been a great deal of digital ink spilled on these pages about Alcides Escobar batting leadoff.  There was talk about needing to move him out of the leadoff spot. Then how to live with and even "love" it. Next, an indepth FanPost (A what post?) breaking down lineup spots and the results.  Speculation last year centered around whether he was playing himself out of a job.  Then a plea for a new leadoff hitter in the offseason. And, finally, of course, the last desperate act of a madman or manager is to go back to what worked when you won a pair of pennants.

And it's not like Ned and Dayton aren't skeptical like the rest of us:

"The numbers do not bear it out, and I have no idea," Yost said.

"Sometimes, there’s just no explanation," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said.

But here we find ourselves again, with #EskyMagic back in the leadoff spot, looking to "ambush" pitchers.

The Story

Just a quick walk down memory lane to remind everyone how this all started. Prior to 2014, Escobar had batted leadoff only nine times in his career, which makes a lot of sense for a player with an on-base percentage of .295. In 2014, Nori Aoki had garnered the majority of time in the leadoff spot for the year. Aoki’s on-base percentage had remained consistent throughout the year, hovering around the .335 mark, one of the best on the team most of the season.

But after a week where the Royals had only scored 2.5 runs per game and had dropped four of five, including the Jarrod Dyson pickoff game (and the Daniel Nava game was the second day of the Escobar experiment), there was intense pressure on Ned Yost. The team had been in first place for nearly a month, but had fallen out and was in danger of missing the playoffs.  And who knew when the 29-year playoff drought would end with James Shields departing in the offseason. For Yost, there might have been eerie similarities to the end of his tenure in Milwaukee, echoes to his firing in the middle of a September pennant race. So, on September 13th, the lineup was shuffled and Escobar found himself batting leadoff.

The Royals scored seven runs that night and Escobar was one of the keys. He hit .375/.412/.484 the rest of the way and Aoki, who was bumped to #2, caught fire as well, hitting .429/.467/.554 down the stretch. The team went 9-6, squeaked into the playoffs, and we all know how that ended: within 90 feet of a World Series title.  The Royals played with pretty much the same lineup the rest of the season and postseason:

Escobar . Aoki . Cain . Hosmer . Butler . Gordon . Perez . Infante . Moustakas

Escobar led off most of the year for the 2015 Royals and, though all knew that was less than ideal, it somehow seemed to work. In September, Alex Gordon and newly acquired Ben Zobrist took turns at the top of the order with Escobar down in the 9 spot primarily. However, the team scuffled to an 8-13 record during that stretch and were in danger of losing home field advantage. Alcides was reinstalled at the top of the lineup and the team finished off the season winning five in a row.

During the playoffs, the "Esky Ambush" became a thing, culminating in the little league inside-the-park home run in Game 1 of the World Series and then this nonsense with bush leaguer Noah Syndergaard in Game 3.

Since it was Syndergaard, it was a “message pitch”; if it had been Yordano, it would have been “thuggish”
if it had been Yordano, it would have been "thuggish"; but since it was Syndergaard, it was a "message pitch"

In 2016, Ned didn’t mess with what had worked and led off with Escobar again. The team started 30-22 and all was well. But then, in early June, the team hit a rough patch, losing eight in a row. In the first game, the bullpen melted down, handing Cleveland a win. The team then scored one run or less for the next seven games. Whit Merrifield was installed in the leadoff spot. Kansas City lost the next game but touched up Chris Sale for five runs.  They proceeded to win eight of their next nine.

The team struggled again and Escobar was back at the top of the lineup for the end of July and early August. But the team went 8-14 during that stretch and Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando rotated for the rest of the month. The team won 16 of 20 to climb back into contention for a playoff spot. They faded down the stretch and ended at .500, all with Esky in the lower third of the order.

For 2017, Alex Gordon and then Whit Merrifield led off. With the team at 10-20, weighed down by a historically inept offense, Ned decided to try #EskyMagic once more.

The Stats

There are a couple of ways to weigh these and I’ve struggled a little with "which is more representative". There are huge chunks of time in 2015 and 2016 where he was the leadoff hitter. In 2014 and 2017, he spent a considerably lower percentage in the leadoff spot so they should make a nice counterweight. However, I’m not sure how much of pre-EskyMagic 2014 should count - his 16 games at leadoff include the last 15 games of the season and a random game in July.  So I’ll try to present both when it’s not too cumbersome. Enough with the disclaimers and methods, let’s start with some numbers. First, the most important number - WINS.

Esky Leadoff Games Wins Losses Win Pct
2014 16 10 6 .625
2015 131 82 49 .626
2016 82 39 43 .476
2017 4 3 1 .750
Sum Leadoff 233 134 99 .575
Esky not Leadoff Games Wins Losses Win Pct
2014 146 79 67 .541
2015 31 13 18 .419
2016 80 42 38 .525
2017 30 10 20 .333
Sum notLeadoff 287 144 143 .502
Sum nL (-2014) 141 65 76 .461


Since Alcides Escobar started leading off toward the end of 2014, the Royals are 133-98 (.596). When he doesn’t lead off over that time, they’re 65-76 (.461). Even if you give the Royals the rest of 2014, they’re still only 144-143 (.502). They’re a 97-win team with him leading off and either a 75 or 82 win team without. The Royals are better when he leads off. Case closed!

Not so fast.

Let’s look at more than just wins and losses. Does the team hit better when he bats leadoff? Here is the breakdown for the Royals when Esky leads off and when he doesn't.

Esky Leadoff AVG OBA SLG OPS Runs Runs/Gm Opp Runs OpRn/Gm
2014 .289 .351 .394 .745 70 4.38 56 3.50
2015 .272 .324 .413 .737 584 4.46 486 3.71
2016 .258 .306 .379 .685 299 3.65 355 4.33
2017 .275 .337 .409 .746 21 5.25 21 5.25
Sum Leadoff .268 .320 .400 .720 974 4.18 918 3.93
Esky not Leadoff AVG OBA SLG OPS Runs Runs/Gm Opp Runs OpRn/Gm
2014 .260 .310 .374 .684 581 3.98 568 3.89
2015 .256 .314 .410 .724 140 4.52 155 5.00
2016 .265 .318 .421 .739 376 4.70 357 4.46
2017 .208 .270 .329 .599 82 2.73 121 4.03
Sum notLeadoff .254 .306 .387 .693 1179 4.11 1201 4.18
Sum nL (-2014) .247 .301 .401 .702 598 4.24 633 4.49

Over the entire four-year stretch, the team is scoring 0.08 runs-per game more, or a 1.7% improvement when Alcides Escobar hits leadoff. And if you take out the first part of 2014 before he ascends to the top spot in the lineup, the team actually scores fewer runs when he’s lower in the lineup. I mean, that kind of makes sense for a player with a career OPS+ of 74. Those aren’t numbers you usually want getting the most plate appearances. That said, it’s only a small drop off, so it could just be noise.

Curiously, the team does seem to hit better when Esky is leading off. There are two big factors to consider however. The team has typically turned to Esky to lead off in desperation. The offense is struggling, so Esky is brought in to lead off. That was the case in 2014, at least, and again in 2017. There could be some regression to the mean going on as an underperforming offense starts to stabilize their numbers. You will also note that the team fared much worse with Esky leading off in 2016.

The other factor is that well over half the games with Esky leading off came in 2015, the season in which the Royals had a pretty good offense and took the league by storm. Was it because of Alcides Escobar? Or was it because they had Kendrys Morales, Lorenzo Cain, and Mike Moustakas having career years? Or did they have career years because of Esky leading off? It is difficult to parse the cause-and-effect relationship.

But look at that last couple of columns. For some reason, the team pitches much better when he’s batting leadoff. Since he took over in late September, the team gives up more than half a run per game less when he’s batting leadoff! There doesn't seem to be any discernible reason why that would be so.

Other notes:

  • For the curious: the Royals were 7-7 in the 14 games he didn’t play with 67 runs scored (4.79 per game) and 62 runs against (4.43 pg). And he was in the starting lineup for every single other game, so he literally has never been a sub during these 4 seasons.
  • How about performance at #1 vs other spots in the lineup? His career triple slash in the #1 spot is .256/.290/.317 for a tOPS+ of 91. In other words, he's actually a worse hitter in the #1 spot than his career numbers by almost 10%. Maybe there’s some sort of psychological effect on the rest of the team? It’s possible, but two potential candidates in Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain both like hitting leadoff, and Gordon has his best numbers leading off.

Conclusion

The Royals hit better with Esky leading off, but don't necessarily score more runs. For some reason, the team pitches better when he leads off, just like when George Brett was the hitting coach. While I don't want to completely discount the possibility of it being something psychological that we just can’t measure, it’s probably just one of those statistical flukes. Then again, maybe the pitchers just bring it a little harder on days when he leads off because they figure they’re not going to get as much offensive support. Don’t be silly! That’d be like saying you have a magic leadoff hitter who just knows how to help the team win.