Raising the Esco-bar

By Editorial Staff

If you had told me eleven days ago that Alcides Escobar was the name you’d like to permanently ink into the Kansas City Royals Shortstop position, I would have laughed at you – then punched you in the stomach. That’s because on June 7th, Mr. Escobar was batting .203 and was in the depths of an 0 for 18 stretch.

Fast forward to today, when Alcides has been the hottest thing since Silly Bandz.

I think that Royals fans would agree that Alcides is one of the smoothest fielding shortstops that we’ve seen here in a long, long time. Unfortunately though, his horrid start at the plate was almost making him an automatic out and wiping out his defensive assets. It made us question why he was in the lineup day after day, why he was still hitting in late inning situations, and even why we acquired the guy.

Along with Jeremy Jeffress, Lorenzo Cain, and Jake Odorizzi, Escobar was one of the key cogs in the Zach Greinke trade last December. He had the most immediate expectations. He was swapped with Yuniesky Betancourt, who started 151 games at SS last year for the Royals. It’s always interesting to me when teams make a same-position trade. Those two guys become linked and are a gauge for the success or failure of the trade.

Last year, Betancourt hit .259 and was decent at Shortstop, only making 18 errors. The Royals fans and organization felt they could do better. However, on June 7th, Betancourt was hitting .239 – 20 points below last year’s average, but still 33 points better than his Royal Blue replacement.

Plus, Greinke had just won his 5th straight game and was looking pretty good compared to some of the starts we were getting in Kansas City. All was lost.

Then, all of a sudden, something clicked with Alcides offensively. Perhaps it was the very real possibility of having another hitless game and dropping below the .200 mark. He gives credit to Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer.

“I’m working early in the batting cage with Seitzer and trying to see the ball better and hit it the other way. And right now, I’m feeling great.”

Confidence. Absolutely critical in baseball. Ned Yost has also shown almost blind faith towards Alcides – not pinch-hitting for him late in games while better hitting options waited in the dugout (this includes the bat boy). He viewed Escobar’s defense as more valuable late in games than his at-bat. Something that drew the ire of Royals fans as Escobar’s average fell faster than Anthony Wiener’s poll numbers.

People’s belief in him has made Alcides believe in himself. Yost pulled off the same sort of magic trick with Rickie Weeks in Milwaukee. In 2008, Weeks was similarly awful at the plate, carrying a .208 average as late as July 6th. And while he ended up hitting just .234 that season, the Brewers went to the playoffs and Weeks got better. He hit .269 last season after being injured for most of 2009, and is hitting .289 as of today.

Faith. Confidence. Success.

Recent success at the plate is making Alcides more of a legitimate inclusion into a conversation about a new crop of talented young shortstops. Asdrubal Cabrera of the Indians, Elvis Andrus of the Rangers, and Alexi Casilla of the Twins all range in age from 22-26 and should dominate the position for the next several years.

Kind or reminds you of another crop of young shortstops who battled for the top spot about ten years ago doesn’t it? Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Rodrigues, Miguel Tejada, and Omar Vizquel all battled for the coveted spots on the All-Star roster. Jeter is still the king of the position, having won the Gold Glove there five out of the last seven years and will be the starter there in this season’s game on July 12th in Phoenix.

It’s a long way to come from wanting to punch you in the stomach to discussing potential All-Star game starts or Gold Gloves in Escobar’s future. However, it’s also insane for an everyday player in June to raise his batting average 43 points in 10 games.

Even when Escobar isn’t getting hits these days, he’s the hero. Last night he hit the hard bouncing ball that got past Gold Glove 1B Albert Pujols, allowing Mike Moustakas to score the go-ahead run in the top of the 8th. It was initially ruled a hit, but then changed to an error later in the inning. That would have been the 3rd hit of the night (in three out of four games) for Alcides. This, after not having a three hit game since August 2nd, 2010. Instead, he had to settle for another 2-4 game – giving him 6 of 7 multi-hit games.

.246 feels pretty good to me right now – especially with the defensive effort Escobar has brought all season long. There’s a ton of upside to this kid, and though he surely won’t continue to hit at a .500 pace, I believe that if he can become a .270 hitter, he’ll be an All-Star one day.

Please don’t punch me in the stomach.

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