Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Alcides Escobar's Historic Struggles & Hope for Improvement

In 2013, Alcides Escobar was an abysmal hitter. His 49 wRC+ was the lowest in the majors among all qualified hitters. His .259 OBP was the lowest in the majors among all qualified hitters. His .066 ISO was the 2nd lowest in the majors among all qualified hitters (thanks, Elvis Andrus). At the plate, there wasn’t really anything that Escobar did well in his historically awful season. And it was historically awful. Since 2002, only 6 qualified players have posted lower wRC+ totals than what Escobar had last year. Sadly, two of those players were Royals – Angel Berroa in 2006 and Neifi Perez in 2002 – but out of 1,825 qualified hitters in that timeframe, Escobar is in the bottom 0.3%.

That’s a bad thing.

Here’s another bad thing: since 2002, only 2 players have had seasons with a lower OBP than Escobar in 2013 – Vernon Wells and Miguel Olivo. Escobar’s ISO wasn’t quite as terrible compared to others, as 39 players put up lower numbers in that category than he did. Still, any way you look at it, Escobar’s season at the plate was an unmitigated disaster. However, we’re now nearing the new season, so the Royals must ask themselves:

Does Escobar’s bat have any hope for the future?

Just a little over a year ago, Escobar was coming off a season in which he hit .293/.331/.390, which was good enough for a wRC+ of 96. Prior to 2012, Escobar’s two full seasons resulted in wRC+ totals of 62 and 70, so his breakout season was certainly great to see, although some regression should have been expected. I’m not sure anyone expected this much regression, though.

Like any player who doesn’t walk much, Escobar’s offensive value is very BABIP-dependent. In his first two seasons, his BABIPs of .264 and .285 obviously resulted in poor seasons. In 2012, that number spiked to .344, but it crashed back to Earth in spectacular fashion last season (.264). At face value, it just looks like the 2012 season was a fluke based on a whole lot of good luck. While I don’t think Escobar will be able to duplicate what he did that season, I do think there is evidence to suggest he may bounce back next season, at least to some extent.

One would expect a player with a low BABIP to either hit fewer line drives, more flyballs, or some combination of both. For Escobar, it was definitely not the former. His line drive rate in 2013 was identical to his line drive rate in 2012 (23%). Where it appears to have gone wrong for Escobar was in his other batted ball results. In 2012, he hit ground balls over twice as frequently as he hit flyballs (53.3% GB, 23.7% FB). Last season, that ratio plummeted, as Escobar had a ground ball rate of 46% compared to a flyball rate of 30.9%. Because flyballs turn into outs far more frequently than ground balls or line drives, seeing a drop in BABIP isn’t surprising at all.

Of course, it can never be that simple, and since his BABIP fell so far, I wanted to dig deeper.

Using an expected BABIP (xBABIP) calculator found here, I plugged in Escobar’s batted ball information and it suggested that Escobar’s BABIP should have been .338. Again, at first glance, it seems that Escobar’s luck from 2012 didn’t just run out; it beat him over the head with a sledge hammer. Looking at his xBABIP for 2012 – .352 – it seems that my idea that Escobar’s success was purely dumb luck has been contradicted, since his actual BABIP was .344. In other words, those numbers suggest Escobar saw results in line with what they should have been in 2012, followed by a season with lower than expected results. Case closed, right? With just that information, it seems like the Royals’ shortstop was just unlucky last year, so everything should be much better next year. I would love to be able to say Escobar’s luck is surely going to turn around in 2014, but unfortunately it still isn’t that simple.

After plugging in Escobar’s stats from 2010 and 2011, the xBABIP calculator indicates that he should have posted BABIPs of .315 and .329, respectively. As I wrote above, his actual BABIPs were .264 and .285. So in total, we have 1,792 plate appearances of Escobar underperforming his xBABIP, and 648 plate appearances of expected results kind of sandwiched in the middle. That’s not a very good trend. When a player has a history of overperforming or underperforming his expected results (Jeremy Guthrie or Ricky Nolasco, for example), expecting him to suddenly turn into a different player may be foolish. Granted, Escobar is still 27 years old, so the book isn’t completely closed on him yet, and if he starts to cut down on flyballs, seeing some improvement wouldn’t be totally surprising. But it’s going to take more than that for Escobar to really improve offensively.

Without even looking at the batted ball mix, Escobar will likely need to make some mechanical adjustments. Not all line drives are created equal, and Escobar’s lower BABIPs are probably at least partially due to not making excellent contact, but his swing plane results in a ball that is still identified as a line drive. Hopefully it’s something Pedro Grifol can work with Escobar on so he can come back for a better 2014 season. For what it’s worth, Steamer projects him for a line of .258/.297/.351, good for a wRC+ of 75.

I do still think 2012 was a career year that Escobar won’t duplicate. And at this point in his career, it’s unlikely that he becomes an above average hitter. Luckily for the Royals, Escobar is still a very good defender at shortstop, he’s a terrific baserunner, and he’s locked up to a very team-friendly contract, so he doesn’t necessarily have to be above average at the plate to bring value to the organization. It would be great if he did start hitting like an All Star, and if the Royals have an opportunity to improve at that position, they’d be silly to ignore it, but as long as we’re not mentioning Escobar’s name in the same breath as Berroa and Perez, the Royals should be fine.

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