Shortstop Alcides Escobar was wrapping up a group interview session with reporters on his first day at spring training when Royals manager Ned Yost came over for a hug and query.
“Where’s Maximillian?” Yost said.
Escobar’s 1-year-old son, born during last year’s spring training, will be in town on Friday. That’s what the new papa told Yost, who insisted on a greeting.
Turned out, the birth of Maximillian was the start of a special year for Escobar, who went on to have arguably his strongest major-league season and became a catalyst for the Royals’ playoff chase and pennant run in 2014.
For the season, Escobar hit .285 with a .317 on-base percentage and .377 slugging percentage and had 31 stolen bases. The numbers were slightly below his career bests from two years ago but showed marked improvement over the previous season.
The defense was the usual better-than-average variety, with a blend of eye-popping moments.
To Escobar, 2014 was so much fun he didn’t want to miss any of it, and he didn’t.
Escobar was one of four players in baseball to start 162 games and became the first major-league shortstop since the Phillies’ Jimmy Rollins in 2007 to start an entire season. Escobar also was the first Royals shortstop who didn’t miss a game during a season.
Nobody has started more games at short over the last four years.
“When I came here, I said I wanted to play no matter what,” Escobar said. “Every year, it’s the same, no matter what. I want to play.”
Yost loves to pencil him in the lineup.
“When you have that kind of player, you hate taking him out of the game,” Yost said. “And when you know you’re playing a bunch of tight games you don’t want to lessen your defense any day.”
Yost, who was the Brewers’ manager when Escobar made his major-league debut for Milwaukee in 2008, has always admired Escobar’s durability.
“All the time I’ve known Esky, he’s never worn down,” Yost said. “He has that type of ability. He’s resilient, able to play every day.
“He’s just a tough kid. He gets spiked, or hit by a pitch, and you want to give him a day off. But he always comes back out and is every bit as productive.”
The production was never greater than in September and October, a strong finishing kick that coincided with his new spot in the batting order.
Looking for more production and speed at the top, Yost moved Escobar from the bottom — he had spent nearly the entire season hitting eighth or ninth — to leadoff.
In the final 15 games, Escobar was at his best, hitting .375 as the Royals chased and captured their first playoff spot in nearly three decades.
Once the postseason started, there was no reason to change. Escobar remained at the top, and in 15 games hit .292, including six multihit games and a .310 World Series average. He homered against the Orioles in the first game of the AL Championship Series, and opened game three of the World Series in San Francisco with a double.
If he’s to stay at the top of the batting order, Escobar, a free swinger who drew only 23 walks last season, will need to adjust.
“I like to swing the bat,” Escobar said. “If I lead off, I’ll need to take more walks.”
One adjustment Escobar can’t fathom is playing less. Actually, he added to his year-long action by suiting up for a handful of games in the Venezuelan Winter League in his native country. This was after he participated with catcher Salvador Perez, pitcher Jeremy Guthrie and catcher Erik Kratz in the Japan All-Star Series.
The Japan trip interested him because Escobar had never been to the country, and family played a role in his decision to play winter ball for La Guaira.
“I have family in La Guaira,” Escboar said. “Not everybody could come and see me play (in Kansas City).”
When they arrived Tuesday, Escobar and Kendrys Morales were the final Royals to report to camp. Many of the players had been here since early February, but there was no concern about Escobar not getting in additional work. Nobody — at least not a shortstop — works more often than Escobar.