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October 10, 2015

Playoff Prospectus

And Then Nothing Turned Itself Into Science: ALDS Game 2

by Sam Miller

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In the bottom of the first inning Friday, with the Royals trailing the ALDS one game to none on their home field, Alcides Escobar led off for the Royals and cut at the first pitch. He fouled it off, but no matter:

This is part of what is becoming known as Esky Magic. This part of it goes that when Alcides Escobar swings at the first pitch in the first inning, the Royals win, a theory developed and cheered along by the Royals players themselves. What if I told you I had the actual data that shows whether this is “true”? Would you want to know it? You are smart, so you know that in a large sense of course it isn’t true. But if I just slip these results in an envelope and slide them across the table and walk out of the room, you’re going to open that envelope, aren’t you?

There’s a kind of avant-garde poetry that uses “unauthored books.” As described by the New Yorker a couple weeks back, “unauthored books are written by computers and are ‘like rolling the dice for words.' If they move a reader, it is by means of uncanny associations and the sense that they read as if written by a person.” Another way of describing the effectivness of this kind of poetry is that the reader narrativizes these texts, despite knowing somewhere deep in their brains that any perceived significance is an illusion and that the words themselves are meaningless. If I tell you what the Royals’ record is when Alcides Escobar swings at the first pitch of a game, you’ll know that this record—good or bad—is an illusion. You know this, I know this. But as I soon as I leave the room, I also know that you’re going to open that envelope, and when you do, your brain is going to spark a couple times and put some meaning into whatever is inside. (I’ll make an exception for you, MGL.)

I have written that record on a piece of paper and put it in an envelope. It’s at the bottom of this article. I bet you’ve already bothered to guess what it says, dummy.

The larger part of Esky Magic goes that when Escobar leads off for the Royals, it is somehow better than when Alex Gordon or Ben Zobrist does—“somehow” sounding dismissive, but so far as I know, “somehow” is really as far as Esky Magic thinking has progressed in explaining this phenomenon. It’s not that Escobar hits way better when he’s leading off, and it’s not that the Royals score more runs when he’s leading off. They just win (the thinking goes), somehow. In fact, what’s notable about Esky Magic—both the swinging-at-the-first-pitch idea, and the leading-off-for-shrug-reasons idea—is that they both turn Escobar’s weakness into his strength. Escobar really does swing at an absurd number of first pitches in the first inning: 59, the second-most in baseball, despite starting only 131 games there. In other words: His swing rate on the first pitch of the game is higher than the league-average swing rate overall. Maybe this is brilliant—taking advantage of pitchers who try to groove one down the middle—but it’s definitely counter to the traditional way of treating that at-bat, as a means of giving teammates (and yourself) a chance to see the pitcher’s stuff. And, Escobar really is an awful leadoff hitter. Of the 22 batters who had at least 300 PA in the leadoff spot this year, his OBP was the worst—by 17 friggin points.

These days, every playoff team—every team, really—has to have its memeably cute affectation, the antlers or the bubble machine or the dougie or this, Esky Magic. What’s amazing is that Esky Magic seems to be the first meme that actually affects the choices that a Major League team is making on the field. It’s no harmless celebration; it’s, astoundingly, something that guides decisions. I’m almost certainly overselling this; but am I? What other reason is there for Alcides Escobar to bat leadoff? Ned Yost knows this—he put Gordon or Zobrist in the leadoff spot in September, and he undoubtedly knows that the Royals scored more runs in those games, and that the Royals lost those games because their pitchers were worse, and yet here we are, with ALDScobar at the top of the lineup every day again. I’m not even mad, guys! I’m amused to no end, because whether the Royals win or lose I’m watching a team, in 2015, make decisions based on a hashtag. Reported the Astros’ radio broadcast, “Ned Yost has said a few times maybe he doesn’t get on base as much as you’d like the leadoff guy to, but when he’s at the top of the lineup this team wins for whatever reason.” For whatever reason! "There's no statistical reason," he has said. "It just works. It just works." God bless the Royals, God bless Ned Yost, and God bless me for having no personal stake in whether or not the Royals win.

**

Escobar wasn’t the only batter swinging at the first pitch Friday. Jose Altuve (who did so in 39 percent of his starts this year) led off the game with a big cut at a high fastball, flying out against Johnny Cueto. This turned out to be the first sign of an apparently deliberate approach against Cueto: Six of the nine Astros swung at the first strike they saw from Cueto, including Colby Rasmus, who doubled home George Springer on the first pitch to put the Astros up 1-0 in the first. After that, 12 of the next 18 did, before Cueto was pulled after six innings. Altuve saw five pitches from Cueto and swung at all five, flying out three times. This is how the Astros roll: Mike Petriello noted three days ago that no team in baseball swings at more first pitches than the Astros, who homered twice off first pitches from Masahiro Tanaka to win the Wild Card game. If it’s a strategy that works in the regular season, it should be especially beneficial here in the postseason, when any benefits a team might get from exhausting a starting pitcher and getting into the bullpen disappear. A team is almost always going to rather take a swing against one of the starter’s pitches than one of Madson’s, Herrera’s or Davis’.

The most entertaining at-bat of the game came from Carlos Correa, who didn’t swing at the first pitch, but swung at nearly everything else in a long battle against Cueto:

Finally, on his fifth 2-2, Cueto threw him a changeup, and Correa hit it on the nose—for an inning-ending double play.

Neither starter looked like the pre-trade aces they were earlier in the season, and neither looked irreparably broken. After giving up his fourth run on a leadoff shot by Colby Rasmus in the third, Cueto retired 12 of his final 14, and one of the exceptions was a walk to Rasmus that didn’t seem accidental. Indeed, his game could basically be split up into vs. Rasmus and vs. The Rest. Rasmus went 2-for-2 with a double, homer and walk, driving in a pair. The Rest produced virtually no offense, other than this second-inning single off the bat of George Springer—that is to say, off the weakest part of the bat of George Springer:

The ball was flared so weakly into left field that Alcides Escobar, not the left fielder, picked it up. That a ball hit like that could be a single is bad-break enough, but even worse when you realize that Escobar, having to run away from the infield, was in no position to throw home. He fumbled the ball slightly and two runs scored, rather than the one that likely would have scored on a more typical single to left.

Incidentally: The Astros are really, really hesitant to run on Alex Gordon. Look how early the stop sign goes up here, even with two outs:

Kazmir, meanwhile, was perfectly adequate, working the Royals primarily up with fastballs and putting a little more on those fastballs than he had in a month. The average four-seamer was 92.88, which is his highest single-game average since Sept. 8th, if still a half-tick behind where he was earlier in the season. He also threw the center-cuttiest pitch you’ll ever see, which Sal Perez hit out to keep the Royals’ fans in the game early:

If we're looking forward, then each pitcher's performance Friday probably shifts our mental odds slightly more in Houston's favor. Kazmir looked totally broken coming into the game; he looked less broken, perfectly fine, in this one. Cueto didn't really change his own trajectory: Pretty good, non-ace, disappointing.

You’ll get sick of this genre of complaint by the end of the World Series, but Kazmir’s adequate day was undone when his manager gave him too long a leash. In the fifth, he went to three full counts in a row, walking the second batter, Gordon. Escobar then fought him to a 2-2 count and struck out looking on a generous call. Fine: Two trips through the order, plus an Escobar; his pitch count was in the high 80s going into the sixth. The Astros had a man up in the bullpen in the fifth but let Kazmir go batter-to-batter against the heart of K.C.’s order in the sixth. Understandable, but with a day off Saturday and a seven-man bullpen also unnecessary. Kazmir got the first out, then failed to hit his high target on 0-2 to Lorenzo Cain:

Now the Astros pulled him, and he walked off with a 4-2 lead. Oliver Perez came in to face the lefty (and, in Morales, defacto lefty) portion of the lineup. But, as we noted in the preview, Perez has a big platoon split—but that’s not the same as saying he’s an effective lefty specialist. Nevertheless, he pitched the Royals 4-5 hitters well: Hosmer singled against him on one of the ugliest swings of the year—I’ll pause to let a better writer, Jeff Passan, describe it for you:

Hosmer cheated out in front of it again and found himself losing his balance. The ball kept tilting further and further outside, more than nine inches off the outside corner of the plate and 1 foot, 10 inches off the ground. It was a mean pitch for one lefty to throw another and a brutal one to swing at. However aesthetically pleasing Hosmer's swing normally may be, this was the epitome of desperate, survival for the sake of survival.

"Ass-out swing," Cain said.

Then Kendrys Morales singled by beating the shift that had so stifled the Royals hitters in Game One. And this, incidentally, is why, no matter how many spray charts you show pitchers, no matter how much you explain the ideas behind the extreme alignment, teams still get resistance from the men on the mound:

When a guy hits a ball hard, pitchers expect it to be a hit. When he taps one to the second base position, they expect it to be an out. These are the ones that really piss them off, that make them put their hands on their head in exasperation. Perez then walked Moustakas to load the bases, and he was done. Josh Fields walked Sal Perez, and the game was tied.

The Royals would win it an inning later when Ben Zobrist beat the Astros’ shade, driving in Escobar, who had tripled to lead off the inning. Esky Magic.

**

A few days ago, in Nature, Jo Marchant wrote that the placebo effect seems to be getting stronger—so strong that it’s becoming too difficult to run clinical trials of painkillers, to show a meaningful difference between actual, powerful, effective drugs and sham pills. “Simply being in a US trial and receiving sham treatment now seems to relieve pain almost as effectively as many promising new drugs,” Marchant wrote.

And, even more interestingly, this effect is limited to the United States. “But the finding that placebo responses are rising only in the United States is the most surprising aspect of the latest analysis. One possible explanation is that direct-to-consumer advertising for drugs — allowed only in the United States and New Zealand — has increased people’s expectations of the benefits of drugs, creating stronger placebo effects.”

The longer we live, the smarter we get, the more powerful sham solutions are. Nothing became a powerful drug. Magic, in a strange and perverse way, became science.

**

The Royals went 42-17 when Alcides Escobar swung at the first pitch this year. They won 5-4 on Friday. They’re now 43-17.

Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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