In the last inning of last night’s Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays game, the Royals were down by two runs with the bottom of their order due to bat. Every team’s last three batters are the most woeful on the team, but the Royals last three are worse than average. Chris Getz, Brayan Pena and Alcides Escobar currently have on-base percentages of .318, .295 and .241. So, the odds of overcoming the two run deficit were looking slim.
Predictably, Chris Getz grounded out to second base for the first out. However, Brayan Pena stroked a ball to center field for a single which put the tying run at the plate. A tying run which was represented by Alcides Escobar and his .210 batting average and matching .242 on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He isn’t just the worst batter on the Royals, he’s likely the worst option in the Majors to bat in that situation..
A logical strategy in that moment would have been to utilize the well-known Rule 3.03:
A player, or players, may be substituted during a game at any time the ball is dead. A substitute player shall bat in the replaced player’s position in the team’s batting order
However manager Ned Yost decided to waive his right to use Rule 3.03 and left significantly better hitters Mike Aviles and Mitch Maier on the bench.
Escobar watched the first pitch go by for a called strike and fouled off the next two offerings attempting to go to the opposite field. The fourth and final pitch of the at-bat was a called strike that looked to be outside, but seemed to be a good pitch to hit the other way. The strikeout was followed by an RBI double by Alex Gordon and a just-too-short bloop by Melky Cabrera to end the game.
When asked after the game if he thought about pinch hitting for Escobar Ned Yost replied:
"Do I think about pinch-hitting for him every time in those situations? Yes, yes, I’m dying to. But I know it’s in our best interest right now, that we don’t do it -- for big picture thought."
But thinking about it and doing it are clearly two different things. He also said:
“Not right now, I’m not gonna do it. I don’t care what anybody says, I’m not gonna do it.”
“This is a kid that I think is going hit some day and I want him getting as many at bats as he can get, because one day there’s going to be in line to win a championship and I want him to be able to handle himself in those situations.”
Leaving Alcides Escobar in to hit in that important game situation wasn’t a matter of inept managing; it was a development philosophy. It’s easy to scream at the manager for making a bone-headed decision, and in the context of last night’s game, that’s exactly what it was.
This decision goes deeper than that, what’s better for the Royals as a franchise: a 15% increase in the probability of getting the tying run on base in a relatively meaningless game in June, or trying to improve a player who is going to be a contributor for the next five years?
The answer depends on who are. If you are fan who goes to a couple games a year and last night was one of them, then you want to see that walk-off win – screw the development of Alcides Escobar. It’s just one at-bat! If you are building a franchise and you feel that Alcides Escobar is an important component, then things look a bit different. That slight increase in probability for a single game becomes much less important.
Context matters, sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war. It’s not a guarantee that Escobar will eventually turn around his offensive game. Leaving him out to fail in clutch situations could eventually crush his confidence. It’s all a calculated risk.
I believe it's a risk worth taking. What does the Royals franchise gain in the long haul from giving Mike Aviles or Mitch Maier that chance last night? At best, they win one game -- a game that will be forgotten in a week's time. Neither of those players are going to be on the Royals when they are in the playoffs, while Alcides Escobar just might. Developing him at the cost of a small win probability increase is the right call.