Royals Roundtable: Do you believe in (Esky) Magic?

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Ned Yost took a trip down Memory Lane last Monday, desperate for the Royals and their league-worst offense by almost any and every metric to turn it around, inserted Alcides Escobar into the leadoff, hoping there was still Esky Magic leftover from 2014 and 2015 – if it was ever real to begin with.

Since, the Royals have won six of seven – including a sweep of the Baltimore Orioles and their then-second best record in the AL – winning consecutive series for the first time this season and are in midst of their second four-game winning streak of 2017. In the process they’re scoring 5.3 runs a game – nearly doubling what they were scoring through the first 30 games (2.7). Meanwhile, Escobar has gone 7-31 (.226) with the same number as his OBP. Currently, he is hitting just .193, and getting on base at a .221 rate. Not good. Protoypical leadoff hitter, right? A real table-setter?

This is nothing new for the Royals when Alcides Escobar is penciled in to the top spot of the batting order. Counting the postseason, the Royals are now 46 games above .500. Who can argue with the results?

In September of 2014, Ned Yost was under intense pressure and fans were wondering if Ned Yost was the right man for the job, to the point that, like what happened to him in the middle of a playoff race in Milwaukee, history would repeat himself, and he would be fired, again.

On September 13, Ned, hoping to get anything to work after falling out of the AL Central lead, propelled Alcides Escobar, in the midst of the second-best year of his career (.285/.317/,377), to leadoff.

The result was magical. The Royals scored seven runs that night and he hit .375/.412/.484 the rest of the regular season. The team didn’t improve much, going 10-6, but the Royals made the postseason for the first time in 29 years, and the rest is history.

It worked in 2014, so Ned had to do it again in 2015. Because, Ned. And, other than a few stints out of the leadoff role, he was pretty much there all season. His results were not great (.257/.293/.320), but the team kept winning. With his struggles, Yost made a change in September using Alex Gordon and Ben Zobrist, but the Royals went 8-13 and lost homefield advantage. Ned brought Escobar back to leadoff, and the Royals won five straight. Of course.

It has worked in the postseason, too as he batted .311/.326/.467 in 31 games and earned a ALCS MVP. His free-swinging ways at the first pitch coined the terms “Esky Ambush” and resulted in a leadoff inside-the-park HR in Game 1 of the 2015 World Series, courtesy an assist from “Gold Glover” Yoenis Cespedes.

To the “it just works” crowd, it actually didn’t in 2016. It started well, 30-22, but they went 9-19 over his next 27 games, good for a 39-43 record. They went 43-39 without him in the leadoff spot.

When it’s all said and done, despite Escobar’s numbers as a leadoff hitter (.256/.289/.315) being worse than his career (.260/.295/.342), the Royals are 135-98 (.579).

“Esky Magic.”

When he doesn’t lead off over that same span, they’re 65-76 (.461). Even if you move the date back to the beginning of 2014, they’re still only 144-143 (.502)

Statistically speaking, its not a closed case, as Escobar, as briefly mentioned above, is WORSE at leadoff than he is for his career – which is already NOT GOOD. When leading off a game, he is slightly better than his career (.263/.302/.345) and somehow, curiously, the team does seem to hit better when Esky is leading off (.268/.320/.400, scoring 4.8 runs per game) than when he doesn’t (254/.308/.387, 4.1 runs per game), and are outscored in the process vs. Esky hitting leadoff.

Still, the question looms…Is a guy with a .290-.295 OBP the dude you want getting the most plate appearances?

To those who believe in Esky Magic, they don’t care, because WIN. GAMES. Why I am a BIG fan of WIN. GAMES. – and there is nothing more important than winning games, there is also nothing in Escobar’s offensive performance to signify that him hitting leadoff leads to the Royals actually winning. This is what makes Esky Magic so bizarre.

As Ned Yost once said, they just win (except for when they don’t like 2016).

“The numbers do not bear it out, and I have no idea,” he said.

His boss, General Manager Dayton Moore added, “Sometimes there’s just no explanation.”

Or as Eric Hosmer said, “I don’t know what it is, but it’s something.”

So, it begs the question, even though Escobar’s stats don’t support it, is Esky Magic something?

Let’s ask the panel:

Brian’s take: I do not believe in Magic

It is hard to explain why Esky Magic works and it’s just as hard to argue against it. But, I adamantly believe it, like Big Foot (as Heath Cooper calls Kyle Zimmer) himself, is nothing more than a myth – a mere coincidence, an anomaly.

I know. 46 games above .500, including 6-1 this year. But, there is nothing that indicates that Escobar is the actual reason. Yes, I love stats and it is also true that stats mean more in baseball than any other sport, and stats tell a story. They might not tell the WHOLE story, however, and in terms of Alcides Escobar, that’s the story. He simply does not get on base enough to make an impact/spark an offense. He does have two 2-hit games and had a huge hit yesterday to make it 5-2 prior to Mike Moustakas’ 3-run DONG (9) – the Royals (16-21) first 3-run HR of 2017.

Correlation is not causation. BUT, it is a large sample size, as only five players in franchise history (Willie Wilson, Johnny Damon, David DeJesus, Freddie Patek, Alex Gordon) have led off a game more than he has. It is something that I could potentially buy in to if Escobar produced at the leadoff spot a higher level than his career norms, but, that’s not the case. In fact, as seen above, he’s “worse.”

I think it’s more likely that the reason the Royals won with Escobar at leadoff in 2015 was because they were really, really good, and more than half of the games Esky has led off came in that season. Outside the championship year, the Royals are 5-games over .500 in the regular season with Escobar at leadoff. That’s very telling to me. The Royals were that good in 2015. Kendrys Morales had one of the best year of his career, Eric Hosmer had a career (at the time) RBI year, Mike Moustakas had a breakout season and Lorenzo Cain finished third in the AL MVP. This was all due to Escobar leading off? Not likely, and the wins were more of a result of these other players than him.

Just because something is “wrong” and it works, doesn’t make it right. The Royals have won both Chris Young starts this year, despite allowing 3 HR and 9 ER in 6. 2 IP – good for a 2.70 WHIP and 12.15 ERA. Keep running him out there, right?

WRONG.

I like Escobar. I LOVE the Royals. I hope the team continues to win. But, is it a sin for me to root for a guy and still admit he is a terrible offensive player? He is, and that’s why he has nothing to do with the Royals success there.

Antonio’s take: NO

I suppose it’s probably not the weirdest thing or the dumbest thing ever, but the idea that giving one of the worst hitters in all of baseball the most at bats will make their team win is definitely the most baffling. I would have to say that the opposing factions probably look at baseball in different ways. I like to look at baseball by tearing it apart, dissecting it at its core and figuring out what made it work. I didn’t get the ’14 postseason run. Just pleasantly surprised. Happy with what the boys were doing. I didn’t understand the people that were upset about Gordon not running home or about people bad-mouthing Bumgarner. They got somewhere we’d never imagine them getting. But then I started to read, I started to understand. The Royals were historically unlike any other team as far as bullpen and outfield defense goes. If you didn’t have the lead by the sixth inning, you simply were not going to beat the Royals. I could look it up if I weren’t at work, but I’m pretty sure the Royals lost like two games all year when leading after the seventh inning. And the way those Royals hit with RISP, it seemed like a near certainty that they were going to score if someone got on. And they stumbled in May. If they hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been such a shock to see them in the Fall Classic. But what was really odd, is that they did it again in ’15. The bullpen wasn’t quite as insanely dominate due to Holland being injured. The OF wasn’t nearly as dominate due to Gordon going down. But the difference is that the Royals didn’t have the May stumble. There was reason to go for it at the deadline. They got a top-notch pitcher, that was shakier than he normally was, and they got a top-notch hitter that could fill in exactly where the Royals were weak. All of that historic brilliance and exciting unlikelihood and people want to give credit to a guy that simply cannot hit. And they want to give credit to a typical manager doing something dumb like taking a guy that cannot hit and putting him at the top of the lineup. These people look at the game when it’s over and think, “It worked,” and go on about their day. That or they give a truckload of clichés about why it worked like “ball players are superstitious,” and talk about chemistry as if guys can only win if they’re the next of buds (and that goes for today’s Royals fans – an excuse to rip on Billy Butler, a man that out-produced KC’s darling, Eric Hosmer). In any other profession, whether in the other American major sports, or in a regular Joe profession, no one gets to have a job simply because of morale. And really, if it takes Escobar hitting at the top of the order to unlock Hosmer’s extraordinary talent, then there’s something wrong with Hosmer.

Baseball is more complex than a shrug of the shoulders yet also more simplistic than people seem to want to give it credit for. Its complexities lie in the idea that guys like Hosmer, Cain, Moustakas, Perez and the like are too talented to collectively hit the Mendoza line for an entire month. They were destined to break out of their collective slump no matter what due to that talent. And its simplicities like the idea that you simply do not position your worst hitter to get the most opportunities.

Joe Hayles‘ take: I BELIEVE

“EskyMagic” makes no sense. He’s a lousy hitter, so giving him the most at-bats on the team can’t be a good thing, can it? It’s FACT that seven Royals starters have improved their hitting (AVG and OPS) over the past week while only two are hitting slightly worse. It’s FACT that the Royals are 6-1 and playing their best baseball over the past week. It’s not measurable, but if you believe that attitude and confidence have any small role in on-field performance, then even a single player having a slight belief in “Esky Magic” changes their perspective and has an overall effect on the team, which is contagious and snowballs into a team who is loose and having fun and most importantly, winning ballgames. I don’t understand God. I don’t understand Quantum Physics. I don’t understand “Esky Magic,” but I cannot definitively proclaim that they are BS just because I can’t wrap my small mind around them. In fact, I hope it’s real, and if anyone on the team believes, then it is.

I believe that ANY small change, even if it’s only in someone’s head, can have an effect on reality.

Why does putting a bad hitter atop your lineup card help your team win? It just does. Why are boobs good? They just are.

Luke’s take: I BELIEVE

For a week now – well really longer than that – Royals fans have been divided by the phenomenon that is Esky Magic.

Alcides Escobar has once again been thrust into his familiar role as leadoff man in a much-maligned Royals offense, only to see them miraculously come to life.

His specific contribution to the cause? A .226/.226/.258 batting line. While yes, that is pathetic, it IS actually better than his season line of .193/.221/.252.

Do not stare at those numbers long, they may give you a migraine.

So what IS the big debate all about? Esky IS, in fact, a terrible leadoff hitter…Right?

OF COURSE HE IS! Hell, forget “poor leadoff hitter,” Esky has reached the offensive equivalent of an AL pitcher at the plate. Madison Bumgarner actually has a career slash of .185/.233/.324. Bumgarner’s career OPS is 80 points HIGHER than what Alcides Escobar has managed to muster this season. So yes…he is turrible. Worse than turrible. Omar Infante gasps at his statistics.

So why is he there getting more at bats than any other Royals hitter? It’s simple.

Domes.

Ned Yost placed Esky in the leadoff spot for one reason and one reason alone. The Royals were losing. A lot. It was so bad, that even after a 5-games over .500 week, they’re still 5 games under and one of the worst five records in baseball.

So in a move dripping with nostalgia, Yost reached back to the days of yore when the Royals offense was humming along and Esky was manning the leadoff spot. Not SUCCESSFULLY mind you (career .256/.289/.315 line), but he was there nonetheless. And look what happened…the Royals started winning.

Is having a poor batter bat first actually help a team hit better? No. Is Esky helping them at the top by wasting outs? No. Would any professional skipper in his right might actually use some dumb superstitious excuse of a reason to construct a Major League Roster? Heavens no.

Should Alcides Escobar continue batting at the top of the order? Well, hell yes he should, you want to start losing again?

Much like Rally Sauce, Rally Mantis, not stepping on the white lines, flipping the cap inside out when down late in the game, and the Salvy Splash, some things just CANNOT be messed with. Do pet bugs REALLY help teams bat better? Does a jar of BBQ sauce REALLY help overcome a deficit? Does wearing your hat inside out have any actual purpose other than to make you look dumb as hell?

No…unless the players THINK it does.

The simple fact is, even with Esky having a TERRIBLE on base percentage, the minimal effect of him realized extra plate appearances pales in comparison to the increase seen when the rest of the hitters are comfortable and confident. At the end of the day, the psychology of the players matters far more than minor statistical advantages. Simply put, batting order doesn’t matter enough to mess with a good thing.

Lets look at it like this…if his on base percentage was 50 points higher, that would be a difference in just 5% more base runners from that one position in the batting order. Over the course of an entire season, you bet that adds up. But over the course of a few weeks its an incredibly minimal sacrifice if for some GOOFY ASS REASON it actually helps the team score more runs.

Is it science? No. Is it working? I don’t know. Would I bat Esky leadoff tomorrow? Hell yes….only a fool wouldn’t. Esky magic wins games after all.

Dan‘s take: TRAGIC

I don’t believe in it. Not it, or any other magic…I will ALWAYS believe it’s a bad idea to put one of your worst hitters and a guy with a low OBP the top of the order, where he’ll get more AB than anyone else. I thought it was a bad idea in 2015, and it’s a bad idea now. Esky batting leadoff does NOT help the team win games. In 2015, they were a really good team that won games in spite of him. In 2016, which nobody wants to talk about it because it’s against their narrative, #EskyMagic produced a record of 39-43, which they went 43-39 when anyone else led off. Now that the Royals are 6-1 with Esky at leadoff in 2017, again, they’re doing it in spite of having a bad leadoff hitter? Hosmer had a great week, Moose had some big hits. Sal. Cain. Moss even had a nice series against the Orioles.

You know who didn’t have a good week? Esky. And, the Royals likely would’ve still went 6-1 with Alex Gordon – who is currently 0 for his last 14 and sporting a .150 AVG STILL has a higher OBP than Escobar – or anyone else at leadoff (For the record, Cain should hit leadoff).

I like it when the Royals win. I like to have fun. I’m quite fun at parties (my mentions were very interesting this past week). Winning is fun. But, I don’t believe in magic.

If you drive the wrong way on a one way street and there happens to be no other cars coming so you don’t crash, it was still a bad idea.

“Everytime I drive the wrong way, I end up having a great day, Going the wrong way improves my life!” #WrongWayMagic

#EskyMagic? More like #EskyTragic.

Tom’s take: I do not believe

I do think baseball players are superstitious and there can be something about playing well with Escobar at the leadoff spot. But, I have no idea to prove that. It works when it shouldn’t. This season, for example, the Royals were bound to get hot and get some wins, it just happened with him at leadoff. There’s absolutely no correlation between Esky being there and them winning.

I’ll just go ahead with these:

06-bigfoot-1bunnybasket Draw-Santa-Claus-Step-14

They’re just as “real” as “Esky Magic.”

Conrad’s take: It’s something

Of course it’s a myth, but it seems to work for stretches, unexplainably for this team. If I had time, I’d likely find that Hosmer, Moose and Perez perform better when Esky leads off vs. when he doesn’t. I don’t know why, other than: domes. Confidence/comfort level is a real thing. They may all hit better, due to confidence and comfort boost…and drive each other in. It’s unexplainable. But, I think we’ve been give more of than just a small sample size. A small sample size would indicate that it’s coincidental. He’s been there enough for me to believe that its real. Immeasurable, but real. Stats won’t explain it. They simply cannot explain everything on Earth, because WIN. GAMES. Winning games creates confidence. The Royals win when he is there. It doesn’t make sense (sabermetrically/statistically), but they WIN. GAMES. Isn’t that all that matters?

I think some people want to force stats to explain it. As I said, stats can’t explain everything. They just can confirm many things, they just aren’t the end all, be all.

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Pretty much split here with this group, and that’s a fair microcosm of the entire fanbase. Some believe it, some don’t. However, we all agree that the Royals keep winning, no matter what it takes.

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