Royals’ Escobar taking charge at the plate, in the field in ALCS
Finally, we have the answer to baseball’s pace-of-play problem. He stands 6-foot-1, weighs 185 pounds and hails from La Sabana, Venezuela. His name is Alcides Escobar, and he is in a glorious rush.
Pitch comes, Escobar swings. Grounder is hit to him, Escobar hops to it. Throw from the pitcher goes to second base, Escobar dives across the bag to grab it and get the force.
He isn’t a sabermetric darling, not with his career .298 on-base percentage and mixed defensive metrics. But he’s the shortstop for a Royals team that is within one victory of playing in its second straight World Series, a team that is decidedly old-school in its willingness to grant players and coaches the freedom to react to what they see on the field, rather than lean too heavily on data.
Play the game. Escobar does it. The Royals do it. And it’s downright refreshing to see how this club goes about its business, from its emphasis on makeup to its reliance on contact to its ability to repeatedly flummox talented opponents.
Escobar was at it again Tuesday in the Royals’ 14-2 victory over the Blue Jays in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, at it from the second pitch of the game.
True to form, he swung at the first pitch, a 73-mph knuckler from R.A. Dickey. Not so true to form, he missed it.
Thinking quickly, glancing to third base, Escobar adjusted on the fly.
Bunt single to third. Two-run homer by Ben Zobrist. And off the Royals went behind their leadoff man, a teammate they adore, a player who exudes joy.
“He goes out there with such a carefree approach, having fun like a little kid,” left fielder Alex Gordon said of Escobar, who turns 29 on Dec. 16. “That’s why he’s so good — he’s so relaxed.”
Or, as right fielder Alex Rios said, “He enjoys it to the fullest.”
Escobar finished Game 4 with two hits, two sacrifice flies and four RBI, improving to 9 for 15 in the series and 15 for 36 in the postseason.
His walk total? No need to ask!
In six plate appearances, Escobar saw a grand total of 16 pitches. For the postseason, he is averaging just 2.88 pitches per plate appearance, down from his regular-season average of 3.48 and career average of 3.63.
As Escobar told me in his postgame interview on FS1, “I’m aggressive all the time. Every pitch in the strike zone, I like to swing.”
He also likes to swing at pitches out of the strike zone, and the Royals’ crazy success with him in the leadoff spot — 109-62 (.637) since the start of 2014, including postseason — baffles even manager Ned Yost.
“Find me one of those sabermetric dudes and figure this one out,” Yost said toward the end of the regular season, after returning Escobar to the leadoff spot and ending the player’s three-week run at the bottom of the order. “I don’t understand it. It’s a mystery to me.”
Don’t sweat it, Ned: Everyone is in the proper place and Escobar’s ability to elevate his game in the postseason is something to behold.
In that sense, Escobar resembles his countryman Pablo Sandoval (and perhaps only in that sense, considering that Sandoval is practically two of Esky).
“Prime-time, man, he’s prime-time,” Royals first-base coach Rusty Kuntz said. “The bigger the lights, the more he shines. He loves the attention. He loves the competition.
“Sometimes during the season he’s just a guy. But when you get to this stage, he’s the guy — the one who makes everyone move.”
Consider the numbers: Escobar is batting .262 with a .642 OPS for his career in the regular season, .417 with a 1.050 OPS in nine postseason games this season.
Yes, it’s a small sample size. The postseason is almost always a small sample size. Whatever, you want to discount what Escobar is doing?
In addition to his offensive exploits, Escobar also played his usual breathtaking defense Tuesday, highlighted by his dive across the bag to catch reliever Ryan Madson’s throw and secure a force in the seventh.
A number of Royals believe Escobar is the best defensive shortstop in the AL — he ranked second to the Yankees’ Didi Gregorius in Fangraphs’ defensive metric, but only 12th among major-league shortstops in defensive runs saved.
“In left field, I get to watch him range over and use his arm,” Gordon said. “He makes plays I can’t even imagine making.”
Royals catcher Salvador Perez says Escobar wants nothing more than to win a Gold Glove, talks about it in the dugout all the time, considers it “a big dream.”
Maybe Escobar will earn the honor this season, maybe he won’t. But a World Series triumph would further validate him, not that he needs validation at this point.
In this age of baseball by numbers, he and the Royals are the rarest of gems.
Fun to watch.