Friday, June 10, 2011

Yost, Escobar, & The Ghost of J.J. Hardy.

“Not right now,” Yost said. “I’m not going to do it. I don’t care what anybody says I’m not going to do it. This is a kid that I think is going to hit one day, I want him to have as many at-bats as he can get because there’s going to be a time when we’re in line to win a championship and I want him to be able to handle himself in those situations.”

I owe you a draft recap, but when Ned Yost drops column gold into your lap, you run with it.

Last night, after the Royals spotted the Blue Jays a 9-4 lead in the sixth inning on a two-out grand slam by Adam Lind – which was set up when Ned Yost chose to intentionally walk Jose Bautista* – the Royals got back into the game when Billy Butler hit a two-out, three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning.

*: Speaking of dumb moves…look, I know that Jose Bautista is, right now, The Best Hitter In Baseball. Intentionally walking him in that situation was still a ridiculous idea. Bautista is hitting .351/.502/.723 and leads the league in all three splits, as well as homers, walks, and runs scored. But Lind is batting .317/.358/.579 himself; Yost himself said afterwards that while Bautista is “arguably the best hitter in the American League coming up”, Lind is “one of the top 15 hitters in the league.”

I’m not sure there’s any situation in which you ought to issue an intentional walk in order to face one of the top 15 hitters in the league. But if there is, this wasn’t it. With two outs, you’re not setting up the double play. By loading the bases, you allow a walk to turn into a run. And most importantly, YOST GAVE UP THE PLATOON SPLIT. With a right-hander on the mound, he walked a right-handed hitter to face a left-handed hitter.

Afterwards, Yost defended the move by saying that “Nate’s matchup numbers are good against left-handers.” At that moment, left-handed hitters were batting .255 against Adcock – 14 for 55, with two homers. Making a decision based on a sample size of 55 at-bats is exactly the type of pseudo-statistical decision-making that real analysts deride as nonsense. On the one hand, we have 135 years of evidence that left-handed hitters have more success against right-handed pitchers, and vice versa. On the other hand, we have a sample size of 55 at-bats, and not a particularly impressive sample.

Left-handed hitters are now 15 for 56 against Adcock. With three homers.

So anyway, the Royals headed into the bottom of the ninth down 9-7. Chris Getz grounded out, but Brayan Pena followed with a single up the middle to bring the tying run to the plate, in the form of Alcides Escobar.

Yost, as he has done all season long, allowed Escobar to bat for himself. Escobar struck out on four pitches. Alex Gordon followed with a double into the left-centerfield gap that drove in Pena all the way from first base. But with the tying run at second, Melky Cabrera’s looper into short left field was snared by shortstop Mike McCoy to end the game. If Escobar – or whoever batted for Escobar – had reached base, they would have scored on Gordon’s double, the game would have been tied, and the Royals could have done no worse than send the game into extra innings.

After the game, a member of the media rather sensibly asked Yost whether, in light of the fact that Escobar is hitting .209, with nine walks and seven extra-base hits (all doubles) in 62 games, Yost considered using a pinch-hitter for him. Yost did not take kindly to the question.

Yost has made the argument all season that winning games in the here and now will sometimes take a backseat to player development. This is an admirable philosophy, which will hopefully exchange current wins for future wins. Yost’s track record of development is, in fact, the primary reason why I supported him as the Royals manager, both when he was hired and today.

But there comes a point when sticking with a player through thick and thin becomes counter-productive. Escobar is not “struggling” at the plate. He is out-and-out sucking to a degree that is almost historic. Perhaps the Royals (and their fans) do not appreciate the historic nature of Escobar’s offense, because they’ve so recently lived through the equally historic suckitude of Tony Pena Jr. and Neifi Perez.

But we’re in historic territory nonetheless. After yesterday’s game, Escobar was hitting .209/.241/.241 in 238 plate appearances. No player with an OBP and a slugging average both below .250 has reached 250 plate appearances in a season since 1989, when John Shelby hit .183/.237/.229 in a remarkable 371 plate appearances. (Granted, Chone Figgins is neck-and-neck with Escobar to accomplish the feat this year.)

So yes, Escobar is killing the Royals at the plate. He has certainly resurrected them time and time again with his glove – but at some point, you have to cry uncle. The bottom of the ninth inning, when the Royals are losing, would seem to be that point. But Yost disagrees. Even in a situation where Escobar’s defense is meaningless – where the team is not going to play defense again unless they score some runs – Yost feels that the development of Escobar’s bat would be hindered by pinch-hitting for him.

I have so many questions I want to ask Yost.

The first question I’d like to ask Yost is this: it’s great that you’re so worried about Escobar’s confidence, but what about the confidence of the other 24 players on your roster? How do you think they feel when it’s the bottom of the ninth, the tying run is at the plate, the team has a history of dramatic late-inning comebacks, and you’re letting one of the weakest hitters in the league bat against the opposing closer?

The second question I’d ask is: if removing Escobar from the game in the ninth inning would hurt his confidence, then wouldn’t it hurt the confidence of, say, Aaron Crow when you pull him for your closer in the ninth inning? (Never mind, for a moment, the issues with Joakim Soria.) Crow, at least, is pitching great. Imagine a young reliever who was pitching terribly – could you imagine any manager leaving that reliever in to protect a one-run lead in the ninth? That would be madness. So how is it okay to leave a young struggling hitter in to bat with his team losing in the ninth? With pitchers, we expect them to have success in low-pressure situations before putting more things on their plate. Why wouldn’t we do this with hitters?

The third question I’d ask is: don’t you think that, at some point, forcing Escobar to bat with the game on the line might actually be hurting his confidence? As bad as Escobar is hitting overall, he’s even worse when the chips are on the line. He’s hitting .153 with runners in scoring position. With two outs and RISP, he’s batting .138 (4-for-29). In situations that Baseball Reference deems “high leverage”, he’s hitting .138 (8-for-58). If all the repetitions he’s getting in key situations will help him down the road, why do they only seem to be making things worse in the present?

The fourth question I’d ask is: if it’s so important to stick with a young, great defensive middle infielder who’s struggling to hit, why have other managers found success the other way? In 1968, Mark Belanger was a 24-year-old rookie shortstop with great defensive skills but who hit .208/.272/.248 for a team that was getting ready to contend (the Orioles won three straight AL pennants from 1969 to 1971.) Earl Weaver, his manager, removed Belanger from a game early 33 times that year. He wasn’t pinch-hit for every time – there were a few double-switches mixed in – but if the Orioles were losing in the late innings, Weaver didn’t let the need to develop Belanger’s bat keep him from trying to win the game.

How did this affect Belanger’s development? In 1969 he shocked everyone by hitting .287/.351/.345, won his first Gold Glove, and even got a few MVP votes. Belanger was never a good hitter and would have some terrible seasons with the stick in the future, but it’s hard to see how being sheltered from important situations at the age of 24 hurt his development when he had one of his best seasons at age 25.

Sticking closer to home, Frank White came up to the Royals as a defensive marvel but as someone whose offensive skills still needed to be refined. And unlike Escobar (and unlike Belanger) the raw tools were there to be an effective hitter. In 1975, when he was 24, White hit only .250/.297/.365. White was pulled out of a game early 17 times – and in the DH era, none of those were for double-switches. In 1976, when White hit .229/.263/.307, Whitey Herzog pulled him from a game early 36 times. Contrary to hurting his development, White continued to improve as a hitter into his mid-30s. (White, to his credit, has publicly stated that being pinch-hit for when he was young and inexperienced actually helped his development.)

“I went through this with J.J. Hardy,” Yost said. “He was hitting about .170 and everybody was screaming why we not pinch-hitting for him? How much longer are we going to go with a guy hitting .170? And the next year he hit 25 homers and made the All-Star team. So, I’ve got a little bit of an idea of what I’m doing here.”

Ah, so here we get to the rub of it. Yost treated J.J. Hardy the same way, and Hardy developed into a fine young hitter, and he’ll be damned if he’ll treat Escobar any differently.

If only that were the case.

Yost is a little off with Hardy’s numbers, but only a little. Hardy debuted with the Brewers in 2005 as their Opening Day shortstop, and as late as July 14th, was hitting .187/.293/.267 in 219 plate appearances. From that point until the end of the season, though, Hardy hit .308/.363/.503 with eight homers in 208 plate appearances. Hardy’s sophomore season ended in May when he tore ligaments in his ankle, but in 2007 he returned healthy and hit .277/.323/.463 with 26 homers, making his first All-Star team.

Yost stuck with Hardy through his struggles as a rookie, and Hardy responded by breaking out at the plate in the second half of the season. I am happy to give Yost the credit for sticking by his young shortstop despite his struggles. But did he?

On April 21st, the Brewers entered the top of the ninth against the Astros down 8-3. Hardy was due up fourth, and after two of the first three hitters reached base, he was pinch-hit for with Billy Hall. Hall drove in a run with a groundout, but his inability to reach base proved crucial when the next batter walked and then Brady Clark homered. The Brewers lost, 8-7.

On May 4th against the Cubs, the Brewers were tied 3-3 in the bottom of the eighth. Lyle Overbay led off with a single, which led to a sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk to bring up Hardy. Yost pinch-hit for Hardy with Junior Spivey, who struck out. The Brewers did not score that inning, but won the game on a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the ninth.

On May 16th, the Brewers were losing 5-2 going into the ninth in Washington. Hardy was due to lead off the inning, but Jeff Cirillo batted instead, and grounded out; the Brewers went down in order in the inning.

On June 13th, the Brewers trailed the Devil Rays 5-3 in the top of the ninth. After Prince Fielder led off with a flyout, Yost called on Chris Magruder to pinch-hit for Hardy. Magruder flew out. A single and a walk gave the Brewers life before Rickie Weeks popped out to end the game.

On June 17th in Toronto, the Brewers trailed 9-5 in the ninth. After Geoff Jenkins walked with one out, Yost again called on Cirillo to pinch-hit for Hardy. Cirillo hit into a double play to end the game.

On June 21st at home, the Brewers trailed the Cubs 4-2 in the ninth. With two out, Damian Miller walked to bring Hardy up representing the tying run. Yost went to Lyle Overbay instead. Overbay walked; Cirillo then pinch-hit for the pitcher and grounded out to end the game.

On June 24th, for the first time Yost pinch-hit for Hardy even though the Brewers were leading, 2-1 against the Twins, in the bottom of the eighth. Hardy came up with men on first and second and one out. Wes Helms pinch-hit for him, and singled up the middle to load the bases. Cirillo then got hit by a pitch to drive in an insurance run. Helms stayed in the game to play third, Bill Hall moved from third to shortstop, and despite the defensive hit, Hall turned a 6-3 double play in the ninth and the Brewers held on to win, 3-1.

On July 16th, Hardy came up with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and the Brewers trailing the Nationals 5-3. Chris Magruder pinch-hit for him and flew out to end the game.

Eight times in the first half of the season, Ned Yost pinch-hit for J.J. Hardy. Six of those eight times occurred in the ninth inning; seven of them occurred with the Brewers losing. Only three times did Yost pinch-hit for Hardy with a left-handed hitter; the other five times he pinch-hit for him with another right-handed hitter, suggesting that even without obtaining the platoon advantage, Yost felt like a pinch-hitter gave the Brewers a better chance to win. (This is germane to the Royals, as they have the perfect pinch-hitter in Mitch Maier, who also has the advantage of batting left-handed.)

It so happens that on July 16th, Hardy had gone 1-for-3 with a double, starting a six-game hitting streak that would turn his season around. Yost only pinch-hit for him one more time the rest of the season. Once Hardy started to hit, Yost saw no reason to take him out.

But when Hardy was struggling at the start of the year, Yost pinch-hit for him repeatedly. Yost evidently wasn’t worried about ruining his young shortstop’s confidence by letting a more accomplished hitter bat with the outcome of the game in the balance. And judging by the results, he shouldn’t have been.

That was in 2005. Now it’s 2011, and Yost has pinch-hit for Escobar once all season – in the bottom of the fifth inning of a 17-1 game after Vinny got Mazzaro’ed, just to give Escobar a few innings of rest. Alcides Escobar is hitting .209, he has yet to hit a home run, and Ned Yost has not pinch-hit for him once in a meaningful situation all season.

The Ned Yost of 2005 would have.

“I went through this with J.J. Hardy,” Yost said. “He was hitting about .170 and everybody was screaming why we not pinch-hitting for him? How much longer are we going to go with a guy hitting .170? And the next year he hit 25 homers and made the All-Star team. So, I’ve got a little bit of an idea of what I’m doing here.”

Well at least in 2005, with J.J. Hardy, you did.

If Yost wants to hold up J.J. Hardy as a model for how you should handle a young shortstop who’s struggling to hit, well, I agree. The problem isn’t the way Yost handled J.J. Hardy. The problem is that he can’t even remember how he handled Hardy in the first place.

(Postscript: I was working on this piece throughout the day on Thursday, planning to post it as soon as my radio show was over. Naturally, the Royals announced immediately after the game that Mike Moustakas was called up, and suddenly this entire article is a news cycle behind. I’ll try to get you some analysis of the Moustakas call-up soon, followed by a draft recap and other things.)

26 comments:

Shelby said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel said...

I knew Escobar was horrible, but then looked into it and saw he was the 2nd worst hitter in all of MLB...and the gap between him and 3rd worst is quite large. It doesn't really matter, but it drives the point home -- he simply cannot do enough defensively to make up for that absolute lack of offense.

If Escobar was doing anything well, I'd be more patient. But he hits for no power at all, and if memory serves, those doubles were all down the line -- no gap shots indicating a really well-hit ball. I remember once where he flew out to the warning track. But that wouldn't matter as much if he was a good basestealer, at least, but he's not good at that, either.

If Aviles is performing poorly enough to be sent down, fine, but the difference between those two isn't great enough where one of them is sent down while the other is rigorously defended.

Adrian said...

*face palm*

6th in runs scored, 14th in runs allowed. Clearly, Escobar's bat is the problem.

Bolivar said...

Interestingly, of the eight pinch hit situations you documented for Hardy, only one affected the ultimate outcome of the game. Do you think the 'lesson' Yost learned was that there isn't sufficient value in the move to warrant it?

I do agree with you though. I don't look at my season ticket costs as an 'investment' in future wins. I look at as the price I pay for entertaining baseball. When our manager sacrifices the opportunity to be competitive today in order to build 'for the future' then I have a problem with it.

Robert said...

I'm not a fan of Yost's flat refusal to pinch hit for Escobar, because I don't think it will actually SUCCEED in helping his development. But, I can't get that worked up about it, given this issue is about 147th on my list of worries about this team.

And in fact, if this is the occasional by-product of actually running the young guys out there instead of suffering through at-bats of Rossiesky Guillobs, I'll take it.

gsmith601 said...

On your draft recap can you let us know if the Royals took anyone that they got because of signability issues for other teams. Seems like we've done well paying for better players that we had to give bigger bonuses in rounds 2-5 or so. Did not know if we got one of those type of players this year?

John said...

If they think Escobar will develop into a respectable hitter as he gets more MLB at-bats, that's fine. I don't necessarily agree, but it's certainly worth giving him the chance.

But you do NOT let a .209 hitter with zero power come to bat in the ninth inning of a close game. Escobar knows this is the big leagues, and he knows he's hitting .209. He should, if he is a professional, realize it is in the best interest of the team for someone else to hit in that situation. The only effect getting pinch-hit for should have on him is to make him want to improve his hitting so the manager doesn't have to. That's what Ozzie Smith did. Like Escobar, he was good enough with the glove to play even when he was a terrible hitter. He worked on his hitting until he was no longer a terrible hitter.

Antonio. said...

Two things:


There's some merit to him being able to become a better hitter. In Hardy's first half, he BABIP'd .230, which is obscene. In his 2011, AE is BABIP-ing .240.

On the other hand, Hardy was a 22 year old rookie and is being compared to a 24 year old with nearly 1000 PAs. When his season is over, he'll have over 1200 PAs. Hardy had 1204 PAs through his Age 24 season and hit .263/.321/.429 for a 93 OPS+. Does anyone with more time than me want to figure out what AE will have to hit for the remainder of this season to get his career .240/.284/.312 62 OPS+ line up to Hardy's numbers?

Bryan said...

Who would play shortstop now?

Brilliant roster construction leaves us no choice but to bat Escobar in the ninth, which is absurd.

I can't believe there are 13 pitchers and no reserves who can play even a remotely passable level of shortstop behind Escobar. What if he gets hurt? Ridiculousness.

kcghost said...

Sometimes the two-headed savant that GMDM/NY does things so they can have there way. Escobar can't hit a lick even if he was in a T-Ball, so the solution is the send the only other SS we have to the minors so we never get tempted to pinch hit for him??

If you are going to bring up Moustakas you have to let him play everyday. This means the triumverate of Avila/Betemit/Getz has to be reduced to a twosome. I know Aviles hasn't hit much (if anything) but he has hit in the past. That's something that Getz has never done. And Getz cannot play SS while Aviles can.

This continues to cement GMDM's reputation as being hopelessly inept in the contruction of a major league roster.

Brad said...

Not only all that, but Yost is letting his strategy put Escobar in high-pressure situations as well.

Monday night, June 6th, when the Royals won in extra innings is a prime example. In the bottom of the 11th, Chris Getz leads off and bunts his way on base. Brayan Pena comes up, with Escobar on deck, and is ordered to bunt Getz over. Surely Toronto had to be happy with that decision, the Royals were trying to give them an out before Escobar came to the plate. Luckily, Pena was unable to get the sacrifice down and wound up hitting a single which enabled Escobar to be the player to put down a sacrifice bunt.

Now, I realize Brayan Pena isn't the greatest hitter in the world, but at least he's shown he is capable of hitting while Escobar was (and still is) barely hitting above .200. Why would you have Pena sacrifice and leave it to Escobar to try and come up with a hit or a walk to at least extend the inning?

MoCrash said...

All you proved is that pinch-hitting for Hardy was less productive than his averages, so what's the compelling case to pinch-hit for Escobar?

Kansas City said...

MoCrash is wrong.

It is not a matter of whether the small sample size of pinch hitting for Hardy produced positive results. It is a matter of whether Yost's rationale for not pinch hitting (even Yost implicitly acknowledges pinch hitting would improve the chances of winning the game) is true (did he actually do it with Hardy) and whether doing so would hinder Escobar's development as a hitter (it did not hinder Hardy, White, etc.).

I am not too harsh on the silly current roster configuration. It is temporary. I assume they think Avilles will start hitting and they will bring him back or they will trade someone.

KHAZAD said...

Great points Rany.

Good call on the IBB.

Also, I think that constantly failing with the game on the line would cause it to get into Escobar's head, rather than build any confidence.It is an asanine explanation.

The point is moot now as the Royals have no one else who can play shortstop.

Harry said...

Regardless of whether you think Yost should pinch hit for Escobar or not, Rany's got a good point here that Yost's recollection of never pinch hitting for J.J. Hardy is factually inaccurate. What I'm curious about, though, is:

1. Has anyone actually pointed this out to Yost yet?
2. And if not, then if/when someone does, will Yost start pinch-hitting for Escobar?

Nathan said...

Adrian wrote:

"*face palm*

6th in runs scored, 14th in runs allowed. Clearly, Escobar's bat is the problem."

Yes. Even so, Escobar's bat is a problem. You don't win games by having balance. You win games by outscoring the other team. The Royals would win more games if they made a move to scored a lot more runs and allow a few more runs, like pinch hitting for Escobar.

On the other hand, I do think it's important that Escobar keep starting. Nobody else in the organization has his long-term potential at the position.

Bolivar said...

I think some folks are being bit one dimensional. Sure, hitting is important but great defense has nearly as much value.

Escobar is far and away the best defensive middle infielder we've had in a number of years. His play keeps runs off the board. As far as I'm concerned a run kept off the board is as good as a run scored.

I do agree that pinch hitting for him (or any low average hitter) in high leverage situations makes sense, but those who seem to find no value in Escobar are not seeing the whole field.

True, we have no great backup at the SS position, but Betemit is apparently serviceable enough to fill in for part of a game, and Aviles is a phone call away in Omaha.

bbxpert said...

Am I the only one who is a big fan of Brayan Pena?

Michael said...

Yes, yes you are.

Antonio. said...

A run scored is equal to a run saved, but pitchers are mostly responsible for not allowing the other team to score...not to mention that Escobar teams up with 8 other guys to keep from scoring.


Most defenders make most plays. The transverse is not true. Hitting is significantly more important than defense.

clashfan said...

bbxprt, in the sense that I like the guy and want him to do well, I am also a fan of Brayan Pena. Not in the sense that I think he is really wonderful at baseball, though.

Dodd said...

Since you posted this:

Eric Hosmer 0 for 13
Alcides Escobar 6 for 11

Not trying to make a point. Just found it funny.

Jeff said...

Escobar has been having a mild resurgence at the plate the last week. Seitzer has apparently been retooling his swing and it may finally be paying off. Maybe Ned was right after all.

On a different note, if we had back those FIVE games Soria blew earlier this year, we would be 1.5 games out of first right now.

Bryan said...

Jeff-

Looking back is both insane and incredibly hard not to do.

I agree with your point, but what I want back is that 4 game Twins series. How did they lose all four to their tripleA lineup?

trjones said...

Looks like Escobar will be fine, but I am starting to wonder about the wonder kid named Hosmer. He is looking positively average at the plate in the last week or so.

Frank and Ryan were talking about how bad his feet looked during his swing on Tuesday night. How can that be??? I thought this kid was supposed to be a pure hitter!

I'm getting that sinking feeling in my Royal gut again.

Keith Jersey said...

You are worried because a rookie has a bad week? That's a little bit of an overreaction, dont you think?