Of the qualities that defined the Royals’ run to the World Series championship, the aggressiveness of Alcides Escobar’s swing may be the fans’ favorite.
It was the easiest to anticipate. Settle in, watch Escobar walk from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box and prepare for action.
It happened throughout the 2015 playoffs, and Escobar said the approach won’t change as the Royals brace to defend their title.
“I’m aggressive all the time,” Escobar said. “Oh yeah. If the pitch is in the strike zone, I’m ready to swing the bat.”
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Escobar worked his second day of spring training on Sunday, getting a late start due to the recent death of an uncle in his native Venezuela.
He’s expected to return to his leadoff spot in the batting order, which started for him in September 2014 and continued through the postseason and nearly all of last season.
Why change? When last seen, Escobar was free-swinging his way to a bounty of postseason records.
After going hitless in the American League Division Series opener against Houston, Escobar collected at least one base hit in the next 15 playoff games, a baseball record for a single postseason.
Also, Escobar set a baseball record with 23 hits by a shortstop in a postseason, topping the Yankees’ Derek Jeter by one.
His .329 playoff average topped the Royals, and he has hit a collective .311 over the previous two postseasons.
Escobar’s tone-setting plate appearances reached a crescendo in Game 1 of the World Series against the Mets when he drove Matt Harvey’s first pitch into the left-field gap. The ball glanced off the shoe of left fielder Yoenis Cespedes and rolled along Kauffman Stadium’s warning track, and Escobar had the first World Series inside-the-park home run since 1929.
By Game 3, the Mets had seen enough, and Noah Syndergaard delivered on his pregame hint of brushing Escobar off the plate and onto his backside.
Escobar wasn’t deterred and continued to swing away, getting a base hit in his first at-bat the next night.
His aggressive attitude actually started over the final five games of the regular season. After batting leadoff all season, Escobar had spent the previous 2 1/2 weeks at the bottom of the order as the Royals sought better on-base production.
Escobar worked with hitting coach Dale Sveum, and the percentages supported a more attacking style
In the regular season, Escobar saw more first-pitch strikes (68.4 percent) than any other American League hitter and took that pitch about 70 percent of the time. It showed up in his batting average.
Escobar was a .217 hitter after the count became 0-1.
Outfielder Alex Gordon, who has plenty of leadoff experience, said that’s precisely where a hitter doesn’t want to be.
“Leadoff hitters, sometimes you feel like you have to take the first pitch, and then you’re down 0-1 to a major-league pitcher,” Gordon said. “It’s pretty hard to come back from that.”
When Escobar started hacking as soon he got into the box, the Royals were sending a message.
“A pitcher knows that if you groove a first-pitch fastball with any of our hitters that we’re going to be aggressive and come after it,” Gordon said.
Especially Escobar in the playoffs. His attacking became a story line for the press and a source of amused confidence for the dugout.
The first-pitch hacking was Escobar’s we-got-this signal to the Royals, and with an 11-5 postseason record, the indicator batted .688.
“Our guys, they had an idea on our record when Escobar swung at the first pitch,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “It kind of got to be a joke.
“He’d swing at the first pitch, and you’d hear guys in the dugout say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to win today.’ ”
They usually did, and have the World Series trophy to prove it.