This story is the first in what I hope will be an occasional continuing series comparing the actual performance of Royals players with our expectations prior to the beginning of the season. Some Royals will fare well in this comparison, others (I’m looking at you Eric Hosmer – don’t get me started), will fare poorly. I think it will be an interesting way to judge the value and enjoyment we get out of watching our team.
I got the idea for this story while watching Alcides Escobar jolt two no-doubt home runs in the same game while batting from his new home in the two-hole on Saturday, July 14 during a 6-3 Royals victory over the first place White Sox. By the end of the game, Escobar was batting .311 and was surprising all of us with his ability to hit for power and average.
Think about how excited the clubhouse gets when Moustakas belts a home run. They meet him at the top of the dugout steps, they high five and chest bump each other. Now, think about what would happen if Chris Getz ever hits another of his “every blue moon” dingers. (Getz hasn’t had a home run in any park – major or minor league – since 2009 during his stint with the White Sox.) The team would meet him at home plate, they would pick him up and carry him back to the bench. They would drown him in Gatorade. Why? Because it wasn’t expected. When a player exceeds your expectations, it truly makes the game a thrill to watch.
Alcides Escobar came to us in the Zack Greinke trade. Milwaukee packaged him with Jake Odorizzi, Lorenzo Cain, and Jeremy Jeffress to get our former Cy Young pitcher. In addition to Greinke, the Royals tossed Yuniesky “Boomerang” Betancourt into the deal as well for good measure. Unfortunately, Yuni didn’t stick, and he came back to us again this year.
The players the Brewers traded to the Royals were the best prospects they had to offer. Lorenzo Cain would have been the Brewers starting Centerfielder, Jake Odorizzi is considered to be a future solid contributor from the starting rotation, and Jeremy Jeffress is a former 1st round pick who is still developing.
Alcides had also garnered some significant accolades, particularly for his defense. Beginning his career as an Amateur Free agent in 2003, he’s always hit for average in the minors (.293 career over 6 seasons), but his bat has consistently been overshadowed by his glove, and as we all know, offensive prowess doesn’t always translate as well from the minors to the big leagues the way defensive ability does.
Prior to assuming regular duty with the Brewers in 2010, Escobar was ranked as the #1 prospect in the Brewers system by Baseball America, and Sports Illustrated claimed he was the 17th most promising prospect in all of baseball saying, “Escobar has the arm, infield actions, hands and range to win Gold Gloves at shortstop. He makes the routine plays and the tough ones, too. Plus, he has speed that impacts the game offensively, and his swing’s not so bad either.” Saying his swing is “not so bad” isn’t exactly the greatest compliment, but there is no doubt that everyone recognized Escobar’s dynamic defensive potential.
Escobar struggled somewhat in his first full season in the majors with the Brewers. He hit a light .235 (which unfortunately is still a few points above the “Hosmer line”) and experienced some difficulties defensively too. He committed the 3rd most errors of all National League shortstops, and had the unfortunate luck to mishandle the ball with incredibly bad timing. Brewers fans claimed Escobar suffered from a “lack of focus” and had a habit of committing costly errors at exactly the wrong time. This disappointing performance may have been why the Brewers were willing to include Escobar in the trade. Lucky us.
After the Greinke trade, the only note MLB.com included about Alcides in their story was that he had “the tools to be an extremely exciting defensive player” but he struggles at the plate. ESPN said almost exactly the same thing.
So, what did we think we were getting when Alcides Escobar trotted out to man the left side of second base to begin the 2011 season? We thought we were getting a light hitting defensive whiz who needed to work on his concentration and focus to be successful at the major league level. And in 2011, that’s exactly what we got – a .254 batting average, 4 home runs, and 15 errors, but he was at least as good or a little bit better in almost all areas over his previous season. So, we were pleasantly surprised as his performance mildly exceeded our expectations.
To begin 2012, I believe most of us were expecting another similar season out of Esky. We expected him to play strong defense, and to hold his own on offense, but we didn’t think he could be a game changer or even a player that we could count on for a key hit. Escobar has met our defensive expectations with some of the most exciting infield defense most of us have ever witnessed, but on offense… he’s surpassed our wildest expectations.
Think back to last March as we were contemplating the season opener. What would you have predicted about Alcides Escobar? Would you have ever dreamed he would be mentioned in the same breath as Derek Jeter on offense? Jeter and Escobar have been jousting for the league lead in batting average among shortstops. Jeter has 7 home runs, Esky has 4. Jeter has 27 RBI, Escobar has 29. Escobar has far, far better range and defensive skills than the always dependable but long-in-the-tooth Jeter, making plays on balls that Derek would only waive at. And Escobar is providing this production for the Royals at a $15 million discount over what Jeter is charging the Yankees. Stunning, but true.
A few nights ago, Brad Brickell tweeted (@BradBrick) that the Royals win the Greinke trade on Escobar alone, and I agree with him, at least to this point. Greinke is a great pitcher, and I’d love to have him back again when he hits free agency later this year. But up to this point, I think it’s clear that Alcides has easily exceeded our expectations, and he’s a key factor in our bright hopes for the future. Hopefully, all baseball fans will realize this when they’re voting for the All Star players in 2013.