On a quiet afternoon in late August, Ned Yost leaned back in his office chair and held up a white binder, thumbing through its pages. The binder, three-ringed and thick, contained all sorts of organizational secrets and valuable data, measured to the most minute detail.
Before each series, a Royals baseball operations assistant delivers a new stack of reports to Yost’s office. There are advance reports on opposing hitters, and suggested lineups based on opposing pitchers, and enough numbers to keep the Royals manager occupied for hours, if he so desired.
“I get all of our analytical stuff,” Yost said, placing the binder on the desk.
For all the preconceived notions of Yost as old-school, for every enduring image of a inflexible troglodyte, he remains relatively open to new analytics and their value in helping his team find a competitive edge.
“I like to look at the numbers,” Yost insists, “I like to think about the numbers.”
And yet, as the Royals begin the defense of their American League pennant — opening an AL Division Series against the Houston Astros at 6:37 p.m. Thursday — there remains one lingering question that can’t be answered using that thick white binder; one mystery that can’t be explained using any sort of rational baseball thought.
In the last two seasons, shortstop Alcides Escobar appears to have grown into some kind of magical leadoff talisman, and not one soul inside the Royals clubhouse can figure out why. In the last 13 months, including last year’s playoffs, the light-hitting, free-swinging, offensively-challenged Escobar led off in 162 games. The Royals were 103-59 in those games. In the last two seasons, when Escobar was out of the leadoff spot, they were just 92-85.
Decades of sabermetric study and baseball research has deduced that teams should bat their best hitters near the top of the lineup and put a premium on on-base percentage in the leadoff spot. The Royals, somehow, are a decidedly more successful club when they bat a 28-year-old shortstop with a .298 career on-base percentage in the leadoff spot.
So, what gives?
“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.
In other words, well … see the thing is … uhh … #EskyMagic?
“Esky gonna do what Esky gonna do,” outfielder Jarrod Dyson said.
The numbers, of course, could be chalked up to randomness and sample size. Correlation does not always equal causation. And one could elucidate a pretty convincing argument that the Royals are winning despite their leadoff hitter, not because of him. Exhibit A: Inspect the Royals’ pitching numbers when Escobar leads off.
But viewed in their totality, the numbers are staggering. This season, the Royals were 82-49 when Escobar bats leadoff and 13-18 when he doesn’t. Last year, when Yost placed Escobar in the leadoff spot on Sept. 13, the Royals won 20 of their next 30 and charged to Game 7 of the World Series.
“It’s kind of a mystery to me,” Yost said. “You know, I’m waiting for one of those really smart numbers guys to tell me why this works so much. You know? Logically, it doesn’t work.”
The logic was so flawed that in early September, Yost optimized the lineup by moving left fielder Alex Gordon to the leadoff spot and keeping Ben Zobrist in the No. 2 spot. Escobar’s on-base percentage had hovered around .260 since the All-Star break, and both Gordon and Zobrist had topped that by close to 100 points.
With an optimized lineup, the Royals responded with their worst extended stretch of the season, losing nine of their next 16. When Yost inserted Escobar back in the leadoff spot on Sept. 30, the Royals finished the season with five straight wins.
“Again, that’s a mystery to all of us,” Yost said, “but it works.”
For the moment, the men in the clubhouse have stopped trying to conjure up theories for something this weird. First baseman Eric Hosmer says the Royals feel comfortable with Escobar at the top. Moore says there are things in baseball that can not be quantified. Escobar says he enjoys hitting leadoff, but even then, he offers an answer counterintuitive to sound baseball theory.
“I feel more comfortable when I’m hitting leadoff,” Escobar said. “I like leadoff, because Ned told me: ‘You can swing at whatever you want. You can swing in any count, no matter what. Just keep playing baseball.’ ”
There is one theory, though, one grounded in scientific research that could help explain the phenomenon of Esky. For years, sports scientists have studied the effects of “placebos” on sports performance. In one particular study, published last year, Australians researchers found that liquid soap was just as effective as an ice-bath in helping athletes recover from a strenuous workout. Why? The volunteers in the study thought they were taking a “recovery oil.”
In an interview discussing the study, David Bishop, a professor at Victoria University, put the findings succinctly: “It is vital that coaches and sports scientists try and harness the belief effect in everything that they do with athletes.”
Sitting inside Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday morning, Moore re-affirmed that he is a baseball man who trusts in the power of belief.
“There’s a psychology to every team,” Moore said, “and the clubhouse is a living, breathing organism.”
So tonight, Moore will watch his club complete in the American League playoffs for the second straight season. They will take the field against the Astros, a blend of the quantifiable and the unmeasurable, and at least one thing is clear: Escobar will be leading off.
“There’s a psychology to it,” Moore continued, “ … It’s the clubhouse; it’s the chemistry. It’s how players feed off one other. Those guys affect one and other with their attitudes and their commitment to play.
“So there’s just a lot … It’s hard to explain.”