When the Royals acquired Alcides Escobar in the Zack Greinke trade, the organization knew they were getting a player who still had some growing to do offensively, but would bring a solid glove to a premium position.
In his first season in a Royals’ uniform, Escobar lived up to those expectations. His line for the 2011 season was not pretty: .254/.290/.343, good for an OPS+ of 74. Many fans were not pleased, but were willing to live with a weaker bat as long as Escobar kept playing such tremendous defense at shortstop. They were also hoping some offensive improvement was on the horizon.
Prior to the 2012 season, Escobar was signed to a 4 year, $10.5M contract extension with option years that could keep him in Royal blue through 2017 for just over $21 million total. At the time, it seemed like the Royals made a good move, as long as Escobar’s defense didn’t fall off too much. However, even the best defensive players need to have some kind of offense to prove they deserve that kind of money.
In the 2012 season, Escobar started to make his case.
Escobar finished last season with a line of .293/.331/.390 to go along with 35 steals and 42 extra-base hits. He wasn’t great at drawing walks, and he struck out 100 times, but he still was able to put up an OPS+ of 98. All in all, a perfectly acceptable line for a very good defensive shortstop.
Even after the season, there were still concerns that his production was a bit of a fluke, at least in part due to a career-high BABIP of .344. That, along with his poor BB% and K% resulted in a lot of fans expecting some regression from the 26 year-old Venezuelan in 2013.
It’s still early in the season, but thus far, it seems Escobar didn’t get the memo that he was supposed to slide back.
Prior to the game against the Rays last night, Escobar had a line of .290/.337/.452, with 3 HR and a .339 wOBA. Before you suggest he’s just getting lucky, consider the fact that his current BABIP is .289, which, combined with a LD% of 22.4 (roughly in line with last year’s number) and his speed, suggests that Escobar has actually been on the wrong side of luck so far, generally speaking. Granted, his HR/FB is currently 12.5%, which is almost certainly unsustainable, so I wouldn’t expect close to 20 HR over a full season. I do think he could end up with 10-12, however.
While the spike in power has been great to see, the numbers that stick out most to me in Escobar’s stat line are his BB% and K%. Currently, Escobar has a walk percentage of 6.9, which is below the Major League average, but quite a bit higher than his career average. His strikeout percentage currently sits at 7.8, which is extremely good considering his career number in that category is over 13. Obviously the small sample size caveat still applies, but the big changes in these statistics, along with the power surge, suggest that Escobar may be learning what pitches he has the best chance of driving and what pitches he should let go. This may not tell the whole story, however.
After diving deeper into the numbers, it seems Escobar is seeing fewer strikes in the zone than he ever has (48.5%), while swinging at and making contact with more pitches out of the zone (36.1% and 80.8%, respectively). These stats suggest that Escobar could regress some, as swinging at so many balls out of the strike zone typically is not a strong strategy for long-term success. That being said, Escobar has always been a guy with above average contact percentages, so he shouldn’t turn into a complete pumpkin. If he can continue working a walk every now and then, his strikeout rate can rise some without a huge negative impact to his overall productivity and value to the team.
What exactly is his value to the team, you ask?
Prior to last night’s game, here is where Escobar ranked among American League shortstops:
All while playing great defense for a team just half a game out of first place. Put that together, and think about this:
Right now, Alcides Escobar has a very good argument that he should be the AL starting shortstop in the All-Star Game.
Granted, there is still a lot of baseball to be played before the starters are announced, and even if Escobar maintains his current level of play, there’s no guarantee he’d get the nod due to the total joke of the fan voting process. If it was solely based on merit, Jed Lowrie is the only other option, since he’s the only SS having a better offensive season than Escobar, but his numbers are screaming for a regression based on an abnormally high BABIP and LD%. Regardless, Escobar is currently outperforming guys like Asdrubal Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, and Elvis Andrus. Andrus, by the way, just signed a contract extension worth $120 million over 8 years. In case you forgot, Escobar is locked up for less than 20% of that for the next 5 seasons.
Even if Escobar regresses some, that contract is looking like an even better deal for the Royals than we previously thought. Andrus and Escobar have been roughly similar in their performance levels over the past 2 seasons. Andrus gets a little more love from the defensive metrics, while Escobar provides a little more power at the plate, but overall, their productivity is very comparable.
Paying a fraction of the cost for similar results is money well spent. Escobar still has a way to go before we can call his contract the best in baseball, over the contracts of guys like Matt Moore, Evan Longoria, and even fellow Royal, Salvador Perez. But there is no question that Escobar has one of the more team-friendly contracts in the sport.