Life as a Kansas City Royals fan can be frustrating at times, even when they’re making deadline deals for Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto. At 63-41, the KC Royals have a better regular-season record after 104 games than any Royals team since 1980 (the 1980 team was 64-40). Yet, the Kansas City Royals brain trust still does things that make you go, “Huh?”.
In this case, it’s not installing recent acquisition Ben Zobrist as the leadoff hitter.
Yes, Zobrist doesn’t exactly look like an old school leadoff hitter because he pretty much doesn’t have any speed to threaten defenses at age 34. He’s coming off an in-season repair for a torn meniscus in his left knee. But, to beat a sabermeteric horse to death, Ben Zobrist GETS ON BASE.
He’s got a .356 OBP this season, which is third best in the current Kansas City Royals lineup behind Lorenzo Cain (.366) and Eric Hosmer (.373). Ben Zobrist also has a history of working walks from pitchers with a career 12.1% walk rate (11.6% this season). So not only does Ben Zobrist get on base, he pretty much assures you that he’ll make the pitcher work in the first inning.
Zobrist is even a switch hitter, so he’ll be a tough out for either a right or left-handed pitcher.
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Compare that to current KC Royals leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar, and manager Ned Yost‘s choice to leave him atop the lineup makes little sense. Escobar and his career .301 OBP didn’t didn’t look good as the no. 1 hitter when he was a base-stealing threat, it is now even more puzzling when he’s stolen a mere eight bags against five caught stealing in 2015.
It makes even less sense after the Kansas City Royals acquired Ben Zobrist.
Escobar is hardly lighting the world on fire in terms of on base percentage this season. His current .276/.315/.344 line is relatively strong versus the rest of his career, but looks more like a good no. 8 hitter. Certainly, you’d much rather have Ben Zobrist getting the most at bats on the team with his career .786 on base plus slugging (OPS) rather than Alcides Escobar (.649 career OPS).
When you have ONE patient hitter in a lineup, doesn’t it make sense for that guy to get the most at bats? I guess it doesn’t if you’re the Kansas City Royals.
Of course, Alcides Escobar hitting leadoff made no sense when Alex Gordon was healthy for the KC Royals. Except, of course, Ned Yost viewed Gordon as a “middle-of-the-lineup” type guy. If Yost sees Zobrist as a Gordon substitute, maybe Yost’s reasoning is similar. After hitting three home runs in less than a week, Yost probably wants to put Zobrist in position to drive in runs as the no. 2 hitter.
Not installing Zobrist as the leadoff hitter now, makes me think we’ll see the spectacle of four hitters with OPS numbers north of .350 hit after Alcides Escobar when Alex Gordon (.394 OBP this season) returns to the Kansas City Royals in September. Two of hose four have a strong track record as lead0ff hitters (Gordon and Zobrist).
Maybe Yost believes that Escobar will deflate from his current .659 OPS if he’s moved out of the leadoff spot. Or else that Esky LOOKS like a leadoff hitter because, well, he stole 31 bases last season. Or maybe Yost thinks Escobar’s frequent two-pitch at bats gets games started on an aggressive note. Trying to puzzle out Ned Yost’s thinking is like wandering through a carnival fun-house. All the distorted mirrors can make you lose any sense of direction.
That’s even true when Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore has gifted Yost with a stacked roster that requires little tactical input to use effectively. This roster lets Yost play to his strength: which is managing team culture.
I must confess, every computer model I’m aware of suggests that batting order makes—at best—only a marginal difference in terms of run production over the long term. I suppose we have to accept that Ned Yost thinks how a particular slot in the batting order affects a player’s head is more important than the admittedly limited benefit of a sabermetrically “efficient” lineup. Perhaps he’s even got a case with the apparent affect batting second has had on Mike Moustakas and batting third has had on Lorenzo Cain this season.
It’s still frustrating to watch for this Kansas City Royals fan.