Remember Esky Magic from last season? Where you knew, the opposing pitcher knew, everyone knew that Alcides Escobar was going to swing at the first pitch of the game?
The whole thing seemed crazy, except it was working. In 16 postseason games, Escobar went 4 for 7 when he put the first pitch of the first inning in play, which included a double and also an inside-the-park home run to begin Game 1 of the World Series.
Though Escobar has tried to replicate the same success on first pitches this season, it hasn’t worked nearly as well. He has swung at 11 of 21 first pitches, going 1 for 4 on those he’s put in play with a single and three groundouts.
So what’s gone wrong for Esky Magic? At least part of it has been pitchers adjusting to him.
For his career, the numbers tell us Escobar has been a better hitter on fastballs than offspeed pitches. It’s part of the reason why last year’s strategy seemed to work so well; pitchers were trying to get ahead in counts with first-pitch fastballs, which allowed Escobar to sit on his favorite offering.
To illustrate, here’s a list of first pitches that Escobar saw to lead off in the 2015 postseason:
Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Knuckleball (R.A. Dickey), Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Changeup, Slider.
Thirteen of the 16 pitches were fastballs, and 14 if you consider that Dickey’s knuckleball serves as his primary pitch. Not surprisingly, all four of Escobar’s hits came on heaters.
Here are the first pitches he’s seen in the last 10 games:
Sinker, Slider, Fastball, Sinker, Changeup, Curveball, Fastball, Fastball, Changeup, Fastball.
Escobar, who at one point could sit dead-red on fastballs, now has a lot more to think about. And in a few cases, teams have used his aggressiveness against him.
Here, Baltimore’s Tyler Wilson starts Escobar with a curveball. We can see from the clip that Escobar is expecting fastball, and the result is that he rolls over the pitch (which drops out of the strike zone) for a weak grounder to third.
Even here, which ends up as Escobar’s only single of the year on a first-inning first pitch, Yovani Gallardo’s changeup is effective. Escobar’s swing is early, which means he catches the ball on the end of the bat. Though the exit velocity is only 69 mph (MLB average is about 88 mph), Escobar finds a good spot for it to get an infield single.
One thing that is certain is Escobar’s aggressiveness this year is nearly unprecedented. Escobar’s first-pitch strike percentage is 76.3 percent, which is the second-highest out of 2,305 players since the statistic was tracked starting in 2002. That obviously will come down with a larger sample size, but the point stands that Escobar has taken his approach to a new level this season when hacking at first pitches.
It appears Escobar, who has struggled overall with a .220/.250/.275 slash line, has seen the league make an adjustment. It’ll be up to him to adjust back as opponents throw him junk early in counts — something that didn’t happen when Esky Magic was at its peak last postseason.