In yesterday’s missive regarding the 2015 baseball playoffs and what they might augur for the rebuilding Atlanta Braves, I mentioned the importance of young pitching and deft drafting and daring dealing. One thing I didn’t mention was building a lineup of contact hitters, which the Kansas City Royals have done.
Seeing that the Royals are playing in their second consecutive World Series and are leading this one 2-nil, and seeing that the Braves made a concerted effort to cut back on strikeouts under new administration, this omission might have seemed an oversight by yours truly. It wasn’t. I didn’t include the contact-hitting stuff because I’m not sure contact hitting – at least the way the Royals do it – will work long-term for any team but the Royals.
Here’s what I mean. The Royals had the fewest strikeouts of any team in baseball and won 95 games. The Braves had the second-fewest strikeouts and lost 95 games. Putting the ball in play is a noble enough concept but, in and of itself, it’s not enough. The Braves cut their strikeouts by 262 from last year to this – and scored the same number of runs (573). They went from being the second-worst offense in baseball to the absolute worst.
Even as we marvel at the Royals’ capacity to string together hits – “Keep the line moving,” is their slogan; it’s also something Fredi Gonzalez and presumably every manager preaches – we should note that the inability to avoid striking out doesn’t a mighty offense make.
Sabermetricians differ over what the most important offensive stat is: Some say on-base percentage; others say, duh, runs. The Royals were only pretty good at both. They ranked sixth in the 15-team American League in runs, seventh in OBP. And being skilled at putting the ball in play doesn’t mean the Royals were selective: They were last in the AL in walks. They don’t necessarily wait for good pitches to hit – Alcides Escobar, of whom we’re about to hear more, swings at almost anything – but they hit the ball when they swing.
What the Royals have done is maximize an offense that lacks power (next-to-last in the AL in homers ), but I wouldn’t deem it a new paradigm. They’re very good at what they do — Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs dubbed this the best contact-hitting team ever — but some of what they do defies rational thought.
Case study: The aforementioned Alcides Escobar. The sabermetric set has spent the postseason scratching its collective head over the thought of deploying a guy with an OBP of .293 as leadoff man. (In 2014, the player then known as B.J. Upton had an OBP of .287 for your Atlanta Braves.) As Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus wrote today: “Sometimes it’s important to remember that Alcides Escobar is one of the very worst hitters in baseball.”
And yet: He’s hitting leadoff for a team that’s two games from a World Series title, and he was MVP of the ALCS. He led off Game 1 of the Series with an inside-the-park home run — should have been scored an E-8, not that you asked — on Matt Harvey’s first pitch; he had the biggest hit of Game 2, an RBI single after falling behind Jacob deGrom 0-2, the two strikes having come on fouled bunt attempts.
In this postseason, Escobar hasn’t just kept the line moving – he’s the line leader. But I’m not sure the Braves should model themselves on a team that has its worst everyday player (going by WAR value) hitting first. As the stat guys would say, that’s not sustainable.