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Angels

Angels third baseman Yunel Escobar, unafraid to be different, wields the biggest bat in the majors

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 15: Yunel Escobar #0 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim warms up before ta
Angels’ Yunel Escobar warms up before taking his at-bat in the first inning against the Kansas City Royals on April 15.
(Kyle Rivas / Getty Images)

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 36-inch, 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.

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Almost all modern major leaguers use bats that measure between 33 and 34 1/2 inches in length and weigh 31 to 33 1/2 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 36-inch, 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 of the end of his bat when manager Joe Maddon dug up a 35 1/2-inch, 34-ounce 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.

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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 said through interpreter Diego Lopez while holding up his left hand. “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 35 1/2- and 36-inch bats.

“Now, I’m thinking 37,” Escobar said.

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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.

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

Angels’ Yunel Escobar poses for a portrait with his bat during Angels Photo Day at Tempe Diablo Stad
Angels' Yunel Escobar poses for a portrait with his bat during Angels Photo Day at Tempe Diablo Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Tempe, Ariz.
(Rob Tringali / Getty Images)
It is so long. I feel like I can hit a pitch at the end of the other batter’s box
Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons

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,” Maybin said.

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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 baseballsavant.com, 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.”

pedro.moura@latimes.com

Twitter: @pedromoura


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