Ned Yost still possesses the ultimate trump card, the perfect response for any question of concern about his baseball team. He can point to the scoreboard, to the World Series ring with his name on it, to the formula that helped his team claim a world championship last fall.
So it goes with shortstop Alcides Escobar, who entered Friday batting .220 with a .250 on-base percentage while taking up residence in the Royals’ leadoff spot. Based on the raw numbers — both this season and last — Escobar still appears an awkward fit for the leadoff role. His career on-base percentage is .297, and he is prone to hack at the first pitch.
Yet just six months after winning a World Series with Escobar batting leadoff, Yost says he remains comfortable with Escobar in the role, showing no concerns after Escobar’s slow start.
“Not in the least,” Yost said on Friday. “I haven’t even thought about it.”
In 2015, Escobar batted .257 with a .293 on-base percentage, suffering through one of the least productive offensive seasons of his career. And yet, he has emerged as some sort of mystical talisman for his club. Beginning with the 2014 playoffs, the Royals are 126-74 when Escobar is slotted into the leadoff spot. In the last two seasons, when Escobar was out of the leadoff spot, they were just 92-85.
Yost long ago conceded that Escobar hitting leadoff does not make sense from a statistical standpoint. But it has proven to be a winning formula, Yost says, and he will not be swayed by an early-season slump.
“It’s proven to work,” Yost said. “Who else is gonna hit there? Everybody else you look at, that could maybe have the possibility of hitting there, is struggling, too.”
Among that group: Left fielder Alex Gordon, who entered Friday batting .222 with a .325 on-base percentage, and center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who was hitting .203 with a .289 on-base percentage.
A year ago, Escobar came alive during the postseason, batting .329 with a .347 on-base percentage in 70 at-bats. In his career, he has shown an inclination to be a streaky hitter.
There are few baseball teams that excel with a leadoff hitter posting an on-base percentage in the mid .200s. But Yost says he is confident that Escobar will break out of his slump and return closer to his career track record.
“When he’s going good, he’ll use the whole field,” Yost said. “He’s pulling the ball a little bit more than he normally does — swinging in a pull swing more than he normally does. But it’s like anything else. Once he gets going, he’ll get going.”
Royals struggling with RISP
One consistent bugaboo during the Royals’ three straight losses to the Angels in Anaheim: The offense is struggling to hit with runners in scoring position.
The Royals entered Friday night’s series opener in Seattle batting just .214 with a .577 OPS with runners in scoring position. A year ago, they hit .281 with a .772 OPS with runners in scoring position.
“It’s part of it. We weren’t so good all year (in 2015),” Yost said. “We had times when we struggled. We just worked through it.”