KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Royals buck conventional wisdom on offense, and they refuse to apologize for it.
In an era of on-base percentage and working counts to increase an opponents' pitch total, the Royals make neither a top priority, relying on other parts of their game such as defense, relief pitching and base running to make up the difference.
It's a combination that is all theirs and has managed to put them three victories from their second consecutive World Series appearance after they defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 5-0 on Friday in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
The telltale sign of a Royals' victory came early when Alcides Escobar swung at the first pitch against Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada. Escobar doubled to the left-field corner, and the bench let out a roar. Everybody in the Royals' uniform knew the odds of a victory had just increased.
"It started to be one of those things that even the players get fired up about," hitting coach Dale Sveum said. "It's a strange thing. We don't really do anything quite normal offensively so you kind of deal with what you have, and understand what you have, and you go with it."
The numbers can verify the success in Escobar's quick-fire approach. In the regular season, when Escobar swings at the first pitch of the game, the Royals were an impressive 42-17. Of the 28 first pitches he put in play, either by making an out or getting a hit, the team was 18-10. And of the 12 where he did crack that first pitch for a hit, the Royals were 8-4.
So much for the traditional concept that a patient leadoff man can set the tone for the game. Escobar credited Sveum for approving the swing-early theory.
"One thing about Escy is he's much better early in the count," Sveum said. "He's not going to walk. We're not built as a team to play that kind of game, and he kind of fits that role. He gets things going. Once we started doing it and he started doing it, you trust him."
And the swing-early strategy hasn't just worked in the regular season. Of the Royals' four victories in the postseason so far, Escobar let the bat fly on the first pitch in three of them.
"Everyone says just continue to swing the bat and to get on base," Escobar said.
Swinging the bat he can do. The on-base part can be a little tricky. Of the 22 major league hitters with at least 200 plate appearances in the leadoff spot this season, Escobar was last with a .296 on-base percentage.
"Statistically speaking it doesn't make any sense, it just doesn't, but it works," manager Ned Yost said. "We find ways to win baseball games. We were 32 games over .500 with him in the leadoff spot, and I decided to move him down and we went 10-18."
Yost moved Escobar back to the leadoff spot late in the season, and the Royals won their last five games to wrap up the best record in the American League and secure home-field advantage in the playoffs.
"It's just the chemistry of the lineup somehow that is kind of unexplainable to me how it works and why it works, but it does," Yost said.
Escobar is far from the only free swinger on the Royals, though. They are young and aggressive all the way up and down the lineup. On both of Escobar's doubles against the Jays, he connected on the first pitch. Salvador Perez's fourth-inning home run also came on the first pitch.
"I think [Ben] Zobrist is probably the only one that's not as aggressive as everybody else," Lorenzo Cain said. "We understand what [Escobar] is going to do and he's been doing it all year long, swinging at the first pitch. It is what it is. We expect him to do it. I just hope he gets a hit every time. That's nice to see."
Credit Sveum with identifying what type of hitters he has and then getting the most out of the collective group. The Royals were only middle of the pack in the AL in key categories such as runs scored (724), slugging percentage (.412) and OPS (.734), but combined with other parts of their game, it has been plenty.
But it's not as if the offense is free to explore any type of approach it wants. If they want to continue with their aggressive ways, they have standards they must follow.
"We're not going to strike out, but you have to remind them sometimes," Sveum said. "You have to say, 'Look guys, we don't strike out so if we're going to strike out, you'd better start walking more.'"
The players seem to be fine with the rules so Sveum seems fine letting Royals hitters run with their strengths.
"Sometimes the worst thing about hitting coaches is that they want to put a theory on things, on hitting," Sveum said. "If there was a theory, somebody would have one and they'd make millions and millions of dollars, but there isn't one. Each individual is different so you have to work with each individual on your team, and that's what we do."