The eighth-inning mismatch Wednesday pitted the American League’s best pitcher in 2013 with baseball’s worst hitter from the same season. The encounter between Detroit ace Max Scherzer and Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar lasted all of three pitches, long enough for Escobar to loft a harmless fly and strand the tying run in an eventual 2-1 loss to the Tigers.
The Royals fell to 0-2 after another dispiriting offensive performance at Comerica Park. Scherzer handcuffed them for eight innings. They frittered away a first-inning chance, and came up empty once more in the eighth.
The latter sequence started with a leadoff double by catcher Salvador Perez. Manager Ned Yost replaced him with pinch runner Jarrod Dyson. The Royals could not advance Dyson even one station. Mike Moustakas struck out, and Lorenzo Cain did the same.
It was up to Escobar, who ranked last among hitters qualified for the batting title in 2013 with a .559 on-base plus slugging percentage. Yost ignored the presence of outfielder Justin Maxwell or infielder Danny Valencia. Scherzer bested Escobar with ease, and the threat disappeared.
On the surface, the decision invited questions. Escobar provides value with his glove, not his bat. The situation was desperate enough for Yost to remove Perez, his best hitter in these two games, for Dyson.
But Yost believes pinch-hitting for Escobar would cause a mental strain, an unnecessary one this early in the year.
“Until these guys show trends, that’s when you start doing it,” Yost said. “It’s way too early to start getting in guys’ heads about pinch-hitting. Especially when you’re struggling as a team offensively. We were going to pinch-hit for Escobar in the ninth inning, if it came up that the score was still 1-0, a chance to hit a home run. But not in that situation.”
In this spot in the eighth, Maxwell was the best choice to replace Escobar. In his career, Escobar carries a .634 OPS against right-handed pitchers like Scherzer. Maxwell has a .715 OPS, and Valencia has a .629 OPS. Yost considered the marginal upgrade not worth the potential blowback.
“Pinch-hitting for guys gets in their dome,” he said. “And you don’t want to get in their dome in the second game. When nobody is really swinging the bat good.”
When presented with Escobar’s futility in 2013, Yost countered with Escobar’s production in 2012. He hit .290 with a .721 OPS. Rival evaluators believe Escobar will likely settle somewhere between 2012’s highs and last year’s woes. Yost indicated the team did not need to write off Escobar as a hitter, at this point.
“Guys are allowed to have off years,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that they’re going to be terrible for the rest of their career.”
Yost added, “We’re hoping that he bounces back this year, and you don’t start jacking with them mentally. It’s hard for people to understand that, fans to understand it. But that plays a big part in it, them having confidence in knowing that the manager has confidence in them in those situations.”