Aggressive Escobar enjoying historic run
Shortstop has swung at first pitch of game in all 13 postseason matchups
As soon as Jacob deGrom threw a first-pitch strike to Alcides Escobar to begin Wednesday's Game 2 -- a 7-1 Royals win -- the message was clear. It's not that the Mets didn't know that Escobar had spent the entire postseason swinging at the first pitch of the game, because it's not possible that they couldn't know. It's that they didn't care. Escobar wasn't perceived as being enough of a threat to worry about.
It's an understandable approach, or at least it was. From the All-Star Game through the end of the regular season, Escobar was arguably the least effective regular hitter in baseball, placing just behind Ichiro Suzuki and the other 155 qualified hitters by the all-inclusive stat wRC+. Since the playoffs began, he's been setting records, collecting MVP trophies and helping the Royals go up 2-0 in the World Series over the Mets with an inside-the-park homer in Game 1 and two more hits in Game 2. You can probably guess without too much effort which Escobar the Royals prefer, and they'll hope to see that version again in Game 3 on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET airtime on FOX, 8 p.m. game time).
Three months -- or six years, really, since Escobar has been below average each year of his career -- of data carries a lot more weight than three good weeks. And yet: Escobar has now reached base 24 times in 62 postseason plate appearances this year. His 20 hits are just three away from cracking the all-time top 10 for hits in a postseason, and they're just two behind Derek Jeter's mark for the most as a shortstop. Escobar is the first player with three triples in a postseason in a decade; he's the first to get a hit leading off the game four times in a row; he's hit in 12 straight games, nine of which the Royals have won.
You want an answer for this. You're desperate to know how a light-hitting shortstop could turn into, well, this. The answer is simple, and only partially satisfying. There's a real, tangible change in Escobar's approach, something we haven't seen from him before. There's also been a tremendous amount of good fortune. When a player's performance changes this significantly over a short time, there just has to be.
Let's tackle the change in approach first, and as alluded to above, Escobar has become far, far more aggressive in October. As you can see in the chart below, he's increased his regular-season first-pitch swing percentage over the years, up from 21.7 percent in 2010 to 32.8 percent this year. But while Escobar was slightly less aggressive in last year's World Series run, this year, he's doing it a stunning 48.5 percent of the time -- and that doesn't even include the fact that he swung at the first pitch of the game in each of the regular season's final five games.
There's some merit to this idea. As we've discussed here a few times -- notably with the Astros in the American League Wild Card Game and previewing John Lackey in the National League Division Series -- hitters tend to be too passive in hopes of "working the count" and getting into the bullpen, a somewhat outdated strategy given the dominance of today's bullpens. Assuming hitters will give them an easy 0-1 count, pitchers have been increasingly dumping in first strikes to gain quick advantages.
That's been especially true for a relatively weak hitter like Escobar, who saw more first-pitch strikes (68.4 percent) than any other hitter in the AL this year. And why not? Nearly 70 percent of the time, he'd watch them go by, and that was bad news for him. After getting down 0-1, Escobar hit just .217/.242/.267.
Based largely on the advice of hitting coach Dale Sveum, Escobar began attacking the first pitch on the final day of September, and he's since taken that approach to a nearly comical degree, particularly to start the game. He's now led off 13 postseason games for Kansas City, and 13 times he's swung at the first pitch. Twelve of the 13 have been fastballs (R.A. Dickey's knuckleball being the exception), and even Escobar can handle fastballs he knows are coming.
There's clearly some luck here, too. Game 1's leadoff inside-the-park homer should have been caught by Michael Conforto or Yoenis Cespedes. Wednesday's run-scoring single to put the Royals on the board came only after Escobar was unable -- twice! -- to put down a sacrifice bunt. One of his hits in the ALDS came off Cliff Pennington, who was notably an infielder pretending to be a pitcher. Another was a bunt single that all but certainly should have gone down as an error on Josh Donaldson.
In a streak like this, there's always going to be some luck. But at some point -- one would think from Noah Syndergaard in Game 3, though one would have thought that from Matt Harvey in Game 1 or deGrom in Game 2, also -- Escobar will stop getting first-pitch strikes. Until then, he's doing the only thing he can do. He's attacking the percentage play. Escobar is pushing his team in the World Series. If and when the Royals are being fitted for rings, they'll never care what he did or didn't do in the second half.