Any discussion of Alcides Escobar basically has to focus on his defensive prowess at shortstop. If you’ve seen him play, you know what he can do. Especially after watching Yuniesky Betancourt fumble around for two years, seeing Escobar make plays from short left field is an absolute treat. We truly are spoiled, and it’s one of the better-kept secrets in baseball, from my perspective.
With that defense comes a questionable offense, however. Escobar wasn’t brilliant with his bat in 2011 (.254/.290/.343), but most fans were willing to dismiss questions purely based on Escobar’s defensive merit. While he showed a spark with the bat in the minors, especially at AA and AAA, that never truly materialized in Milwaukee or in his first year with Kansas City, but the Royals saw enough potential and value to sign him to an extended contract. When the Royals received Escobar in the Zack Greinke trade, I asked my brother-in-law and loyal Brewers fan what he thought of the return. In short, he basically mentioned that he’d really miss Lorenzo Cain and had heard that Jake Odorizzi would be a good piece, but was frustrated with Escobar’s weak bat (hit .235/.288/.326 with Milwaukee in 2010) and the errors that seemed to pile up too high (20 in 2010, followed by 15 in 2011 and 3 a quarter of the way into the 2012 season).
So, with that in mind, I didn’t expect much either and was reasonably happy with the offensive output the Royals saw from Escobar in 2011. After all, when you’re a defensive whiz at a “defense-first” position, lower batting numbers are more tolerable than they might be from, say, a right fielder.
Well, then we have to consider Escobar’s current line: .301/.342/.418
If he put up those numbers over a whole (or half) season, the guy should be a no-doubt All Star. Should be in consideration for a Gold Glove and potentially a Silver Slugger, depending on how the other AL shortstops wrap things up (Derek Jeter, Elvis Andrus, and Asdrubal Cabrera might get in the way of that pipe dream). Anyway, even seeing Escobar at fourth in AL shortstop batting average, fifth in OBP, and fifth in slugging. In 2011, those rankings were tenth, tenth, and…tenth, all of which were last among qualifying players. Now, that’s a turnaround I can work with. As for the Royals, this is easily the best first 40 games of a shortstop’s season in Kansas City since Rey Sanchez in 1999 (.299/.325/.429), which makes it even more fun to enjoy.
Looking specifically at Escobar, his isolated slugging percentage (ISO) is at .116, which is the highest in his career (including the minors). He’s already been worth about the same fWAR as he was from 2008-2010 with Milwaukee, and half of his total last season. His fielding metrics are currently low, but when they (likely) bounce back to normal, that should only boost the WAR value more. All of this is bolstered by his healthy .350 BABIP, so keep that in mind, but it’s definitely fun to watch Escobar get some hits so far this year. And when he gets on base, he can run. He has seven stolen bases so far (87.5% success rate) and has scored 16 runs for Kansas City. With 12 doubles, he’s getting in scoring position often and is already over halfway to his total of 21 doubles in 2011. For a guy that’s still just 25 and who will be in town for his prime seasons, that sort of improvement and general success is something that’s absolutely fantastic to see.
Places of concern abound, however. Escobar’s BB/K ratio is lower than those of his first two full seasons of play. His strikeout rate is the highest it’s been in the majors. He’s hitting 2.64 times more grounders than fly balls, though his line drive rate has increased. With runners in scoring position, he’s hitting just .222 with a .300 OBP (with 2 outs and RISP, he’s hitting .278/.350/.333).
The concerns are definitely there, and Escobar’s output has sort of been a roller coaster ride so far this year as his offensive production comes in fits and starts, but as we get deeper into the season those fluctuations will be reduced and we should see his line stabilize. When it does, if he can maintain a BABIP above .300, we should be getting some solid offense from our shortstop. On a team that doesn’t know who to rely on, having a guy low in the batting order that can still get on base and bring in runs is extremely useful. And when he’s doing that while making amazing plays at short, then I’d say he’s worth the $1 million the Royals are handing him this season.
After all, FanGraphs shows his value as $4.8 million at this point. I think we’d all take that bargain value, especially considering that his guaranteed yearly salary never tops $3 million throughout his contract. And it’s easy to dream of future value, with his best offensive years likely ahead of him. If he can continue to play stellar defense and keeps ratcheting up his offensive production little by little, he’ll easily be worth the options worth $5.25 and $6.5 million in 2016 and 2017, his age 29 and 30 seasons.
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, however. History still suggests this offensive success isn’t made to last, but I can definitely dream. Basically, enjoy the production we’re getting out of Escobar and sing his praises to every baseball fan you meet. It’s about time he gets plenty of recognition to go with Billy Butler and Mike Moustakas this season. But you should still talk about them, too.