Earlier this month, I wrote an article about Ned Yost’s decision to ask his front office for help in constructing a more productive lineup. That request had a happy result: a lineup that looked a lot more sensible than the one the Royals had been running out before.
The key upgrade in the statistically constructed order was defense-first shortstop Alcides Escobar’s well-deserved demotion from the second spot in the lineup to the ninth. At the time, Escobar was slumping and the Royals weren’t winning, which convinced Yost to take the drastic step of making a data-driven decision. It wasn’t the most inspiring decision a manager has ever made—you’d prefer that your manager make that sort of decision before giving one of your worst hitters a two-month trial at the top of the lineup—but I took it as an encouraging sign that we were inching closer to a future in which front offices and field staffs would work hand in hand to give their best hitters the most (and most important) plate appearances.
SS Alcides Escobar back in second spot for #Royals because that where manager Ned Yost thinks he fits best.
— Bob Dutton (@Royals_Report) June 25, 2013
Escobar batted leadoff on Saturday and second on Sunday and Tuesday, so it’s obvious that the grand optimized lineup experiment is over. From June 5 through June 21, the period encompassing his first and last starts in the no. 9 slot, Escobar hit .260/.288/.380, which—while an improvement over the slump that sent him there—hardly screams top-of-the-order material. The Royals went 11-5 over that span, but they also scored just over four runs per game, which is less than the going rate for a playoff contender. It wasn’t as if they’d been bludgeoning their opponents into submission and could afford to go back to giving away outs. There are more details about the decision here, but it boils down to an Eric Hosmer hot streak, a perceived need to protect Billy Butler, and Escobar's innate no. 2-ness.
In a bit of poetic justice, Tuesday’s game ended in a one-run Royals loss when Escobar’s restored spot in the order came up with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth. He flew out—though to be fair, he’d singled and walked earlier in the game, and was on base for Hosmer’s homer. In the grand scheme of things, none of this matters very much, both because nothing about baseball matters much and because the cost to the Royals in runs over the rest of the season could probably be counted on one hand, give or take a few fingers. But this doesn't look like progress.
“We’ve struggled at times offensively, but I firmly, firmly believe that we’re going to be a much better offensive club in the second half than we were in the first half,” Yost said before the game.
That seems like a reasonable belief. But if the Royals do start scoring more, it won’t be because of Escobar’s presence in the second spot. It’ll be in spite of it. And now that we know where the statheads upstairs believe a player like Escobar should bat, you have to wonder how much longer managers will be allowed to make this sort of seemingly self-destructive decision, even if the destruction plays out on a fairly small scale.