Es­co­bar dares to be dif­fer­ent, car­ries big stick An­gels third base­man swings the big­gest bat in the ma­jor leagues

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Pe­dro Moura

The man who reg­u­larly swings the big­gest bat in base­ball is 34 years old, a decade into his ma­jor league ca­reer, and has never hit more than 14 home runs in a sea­son. He opened the last two cam­paigns as a lead­off man, a sin­gles-hit­ting spe­cial­ist.

An­gels third base­man Yunel Es­co­bar wields a 36inch, 34-ounce slab of wood cut from a maple tree, a relic of an ear­lier era, a mon­stros­ity mar­veled at by team­mates and op­po­nents alike.

“It is so long,” An­gels short­stop An­drel­ton Simmons said, “I feel like I can hit a pitch at the end of the other bat­ter’s box.”

Pre­cise records on the big­gest bats in a big-league rack are not kept, thanks to the dozens of MLB-ap­proved man­u­fac­tur­ers and play­ers who typ­i­cally switch their pref­er­ences sev­eral times a sea­son. But em­ploy­ees of three prom­i­nent com­pa­nies — Sam Bat, Old Hick­ory Bat Co. and Marucci — all said they had not shipped a bat of that length to any player in many years, if ever. An MLB sales rep­re­sen­ta­tive at Trin­ity Bat Com­pany, which some­times sup­plies Es­co­bar, said he is the only one.

Al­most all modern ma­jor

lea­guers use bats that mea­sure be­tween 33 and 341⁄2 inches in length and weigh 31 to 331⁄2 ounces. Com­par­isons rel­e­vant to Es­co­bar date back many years.

A half-cen­tury ago, ballplay­ers rou­tinely hit with big­ger bats. Of note more re­cently, for­mer An­gels slug­ger Mo Vaughn de­ployed a 36inch, 36-ounce bat and re­port­edly swung a 38-ounce model by ac­ci­dent for a few games in 2002. Rus­sell Branyan, Khalil Greene, and Jose Canseco would oc­ca­sion­ally use bats as long as 36 inches and heavy as 34 ounces.

Es­co­bar’s ex­per­i­ment be­gan some­time in the spring of 2013 with the Tampa Bay Rays. He was strug­gling with an av­er­age of about .200 and re­peat­edly hit­ting balls off the end of his bat when man­ager Joe Mad­don dug up a 351⁄2-inch, 34ounce bat­ting prac­tice bat and handed it to his short­stop.

“Try this in BP,” Mad­don told Es­co­bar, con­vinced his hands were strong enough to carry it through the zone in a timely fash­ion.

For weeks Es­co­bar did, ex­clu­sively left-handed, with the goal of build­ing strength in his left hand. Mad­don said he’d need that when he brought the bat to his nat­u­ral right-handed side.

“When the bat’s su­per-heavy, this is the hand that doesn’t have the strength,” Es­co­bar, hold­ing up his left hand, said through in­ter­preter Diego Lopez. “By switch­ing and bat­ting the other side, I was strength­en­ing my bot­tom hand.”

On June 20, 2013, Es­co­bar used the bat in a game for the first time, the black-lac­quered wood tow­er­ing above his head at Yan­kee Sta­dium. He boomed a home run to straight­away cen­ter field and grinned at Mad­don as he touched third base.

Es­co­bar said he soon started to spe­cial or­der 36-inch bats from sev­eral man­u­fac­tur­ers, and of late he has car­ried only 351⁄2- and 36-inch bats.

“Now,” he said, “I’m think­ing 37.”

To those in­clined to find en­ter­tain­ment in ath­let­ics, Es­co­bar’s ac­tions on the field end­lessly amuse.

He runs with an aura of non­cha­lance. When he catches pop fouls, he holds the ball high in the air, not both­er­ing to fake a throw. When he slides into sec­ond base af­ter stroking a base­ball into the gap, he stretches his hands wide, pro­nounc­ing him­self safe.

There may not be an­other ma­jor lea­guer whose ac­tions so con­tro­vert long-es­tab­lished norms. Es­co­bar is un­afraid to be dif­fer­ent.

A long-ago Cuban de­fec­tor, he has been traded as many times as any ac­tive player, along the way de­vel­op­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a dif­fi­cult team­mate. He has his fans in the An­gels’ club­house, team­mates who ad­mire the sim­plic­ity of his swing and his con­sis­tency.

He does not use the bat for stylis­tic pur­poses. He be­lieves that its size al­lows him to com­bat the sport’s in­creas­ing ve­loc­ity bet­ter than the al­ter­na­tives. All he needs to do to get a hit is meet the ball in tran­sit. And he be­lieves oth­ers would be well-served by copy­ing his ap­proach.

“I rec­om­mend it to ev­ery­body, and ev­ery­body says I’m crazy,” he said. “They’re us­ing it in prac­tice, but they don’t have the con­fi­dence to use it in the game. I’m pretty sure the day they try it in a game, they’ll never change back.”

Simmons, Cameron May­bin and Danny Espinosa are among the An­gels who have tried the bat. May­bin, like Es­co­bar a tall, sinewy right-handed bat­ter, swings it ev­ery day in bat­ting prac­tice.

“But I’m way too scared to take it up there in the game,” he said.

The size of Es­co­bar’s bat has even in­spired mythol­ogy. Sev­eral An­gels cite a story in which At­lanta Braves coaches handed him the mas­sive wood when he was first called up, apro­pos of noth­ing, and said, “Swing this.”

To­day’s play­ers are wed­ded to a uni­form length and weight be­cause they grew up us­ing uni­form alu­minum bats, which were in­tro­duced in the 1970s.

“I think a lot of it is just how we’re brought up,” An­gels util­i­ty­man Cliff Pennington said. “I think more of us could swing — maybe not that big — but, like, some­thing closer to that.”

It’s com­mon for bat­ters to swing bats an ounce or so heav­ier dur­ing bat­ting prac­tice, an idea that An­gels right-han­der Jesse Chavez com­pared to the weighted-ball pro­grams for pitch­ers that have be­come pop­u­lar in re­cent years.

“That’s what we equate it to,” Chavez said. “But he ac­tu­ally uses it in a game. That con­cept seems to work and it’s pretty fun to watch, swing­ing that big of a bat. His tim­ing’s just so good with it that it wouldn’t be ben­e­fi­cial for him to go any smaller.”

Chavez drew a par­al­lel be­tween Es­co­bar’s bat and Mi­ami Mar­lins out­fielder Gian­carlo Stan­ton’s strength.

“Say Stan­ton gets jammed,” Chavez said. “He’s gi­gan­tic and strong, and he’s still able to mus­cle it through the in­field. In [Es­co­bar’s] case, I think the bat does like a quar­ter of the work. That heav­i­ness of the bat is able to get it through for a knock, rather than, if it was nor­mal size, it’s an out.”

At an age when most hit­ters are de­clin­ing, Es­co­bar has im­proved his of­fen­sive skills.

Since that 2013 night in New York, he has hit .289, com­pared to .279 be­fore. His on-base-plus-slug­ging per­cent­age has been greater than the league av­er­age in each of the last three sea­sons.

His re­sults against high-ve­loc­ity of­fer­ings have been even bet­ter. Ac­cord­ing to Stat­cast data com­piled on base­ball­sa­, Es­co­bar has hit .406 on pitches clocked at 96 mph or higher in the last two sea­sons, eighth-best among 284 hit­ters who have put 25 or more such pitches into play.

“The faster the pitcher throws the ball, the bet­ter for me,” Es­co­bar said. “You don’t have to be that strong. The bat it­self is go­ing to pro­pel the ball.”

Rob Tringali Getty Images

YUNEL ES­CO­BAR, who switched to a big­ger bat in 2013, wields a 36-inch, 34-ounce model, a relic of an ear­lier era mar­veled at by team­mates and foes alike.

Matt York As­so­ci­ated Press

SAYS YUNEL ES­CO­BAR, deny­ing it takes greater strength to swing a big­ger bat: “The bat it­self is go­ing to pro­pel the ball.”

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