We’re now five games into the current Royals road trip, and Billy Butler has been raking. Butler has gone 10 for 24 (a .417 average) with three home runs and seven RBI’s during the stretch, and is predictably riding a 5-game hitting streak. His season slash lines have now increased to a robust .329/.367/.576, and he has undeniably been the team’s best hitter.
But, barring a historic run over the next month, he won’t be the All-Star representative of the Kansas City Royals*.
*Sure, it’s still possible for the Royals to earn more than one All-Star selection. But for now, I’ll still refuse to dignify that notion. Answer me this: how many unbiased observers do you expect to check a member of the AL-worst, 6-15 Royals on their respective All-Star ballots?
If the American League roster were announced today, that honor would be bestowed upon shortstop Alcides Escobar.
Escobar has been one of the most improved hitters in the major leagues this season. For some perspective on the evolution of Alcides, consider his performance this April versus what he compiled in April 2011.
April 2011 Escobar:.221/.248/.260 with a .507 OPS, four extra base hits, and a 44 OPS+
April 2012 Escobar: .295/.329/.449 with a .778 OPS, nine extra base hits and a 113 OPS+
While Escobar’s credentials may not look great compared to Butler’s, the truth of the matter when it comes to All-Star selections is that, often times, the biggest factor is a player’s position of eligibility.
Butler faces a murderer’s row of preposterously talented and high-performing sluggers at the designated hitter position. Among those registered as DH’s on MLB’s official All-Star ballot are perennial All-Stars (David Ortiz and Michael Young), oft-injured and possibly rejuvenated stars (Justin Morneau, Adam Dunn, and Travis Hafner), a young upstart (Jesus Montero), and a wild card (Edwin Encarnacion).
Of the above listed players, Encarnacion and Ortiz have posted a higher OPS than Butler, while Hafner, Morneau, Dunn, and even Young are nipping at their heels. Along with production, there are a lot of established names on that list.
Conversely, shortstop might be the weakest offensive position in the American League. Among Escobar’s chief competition for a roster spot are one perennial All-Star and mortal lock to start the game (Derek Jeter), a one-time All-Star who broke out in 2011 (Asdrubal Cabrera), a thought-to-be washed up vet who found new life in 2011 and now looks washed up again (Jhonny Peralta), a thought-to-be washed up former Royal who is having an almost assuredly fluky hot stretch for a playoff contender (Mike Aviles), a young up and comer who isn’t quite there yet (Elvis Andrus), and a plethora of coulda-shoulda-woulda stars who are currently performing like 2011 Alcides Escobar (Yunel Escobar, Erick Aybar, Alexei Ramirez, J.J. Hardy).
As mentioned above, Jeter is a foregone conclusion. No need to belabor that point. Cabrera has performed well in the follow-up campaign to his breakout 2011 season. Andrus is a dark horse who could secure his spot with a strong offensive showing in the next month. Aviles is a non-concern, because he is past due for an 0-21 streak with 12 strikeouts and everybody knows it.
Alcides Escobar is right in the mix. His offensive numbers trail only Jeter, Cabrera, and Aviles, while his five stolen bases are tied with Andrus atop AL shortstops. Defensive metrics are difficult to gauge at this point of the season, but Escobar’s reputation with the glove surpasses all of the contenders except perhaps Andrus. The 23 year old Andrus would, on account of his national exposure and expectations of grandeur, be a logical choice to squeeze past Escobar for a spot on the team, except for one fact: The Rangers already have a boatload of incredibly awesome players who are more deserving of places on the team, including Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Young, Neftali Feliz, and Yu Darvish.
Cabrera is a more reasonable option, as he is plying his craft on a Cleveland Indians team just waiting to get exposed. But with Alcides posting comparable offensive numbers, his defensive advantages could make this comparison a wash.
Remember, the Royals need someone to represent the team in their home ballpark over All-Star weekend. The case has been made against Butler. The only other legitimate option, third baseman Mike Moustakas, is up against stalwarts Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre, and Alex Rodriguez. So that’s not happening, barring injury or miracle. Escobar is shaping up to be the best candidate.
Now that you’ve seen the case for Alcides Escobar, consider what his offensive emergence means for the Royals. If he can continue to hit the ball with authority, that 4 year, $10.5 million contract extension he signed (with two team option years) will look like highway robbery for the Royals.
And if Escobar’s efforts are recognized with his first All-Star appearance, he will become the first Royals shortstop to make an All-Star team since, gulp, Kurt Stillwell in 1988.
Now consider that for a moment.