Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
From the Department of Early-Season Baseball: the Royals’ best hitter through 17 team games is Alcides Escobar, because of course he is. After going hitless through his first 4 games, Escobar has bounced back to hit .395/.413/.674 in his last 46 plate appearances. For the season, Escobar has a wRC+ of 117, which leads all Royals’ regulars. His .439 slugging percentage is the highest among the starters.
There are two ways to read that previous paragraph. The first way is to see that the offense must be performing poorly for Escobar to have the best offensive numbers. There’s certainly a lot of truth in there. Obviously guys like Billy Butler and Mike Moustakas have done a poor job of hitting baseballs thus far, even if they have shown some signs of improvement in the last few days. The second way to read that paragraph is to focus on how well Escobar is hitting right now.
I’m going to talk about the latter statement, for a couple of reasons. First, I like talking about positive things, and I don’t want to depress you – or myself – on a Monday morning. And second, I’m not sure how long we’ll be able to discuss the offensive success of Escobar – more on that later.
One of the big keys to Escobar’s resurgence has been his ability to make solid contact. He currently leads the team in line drive percentage, at 22.7%, which has contributed to a BABIP of .356. He’s hit the ball to various parts of the diamond, although most of his line drives have been to the right side of the field. Because Escobar isn’t going to draw many walks, his ability to get on base is tied very closely to his success on batted balls.
Escobar typically hits quite a few line drives, as he led the team in that category in 2013, and posted a 23% line drive rate in each of the previous two seasons. However, Escobar doesn’t have a ton of strength, so his line drives haven’t always produced the kind of results one might expect. When he posted a 96 wRC+ in 2012, Escobar was also hitting a lot of ground balls with which he was able to take advantage of his speed to get extra hits. Last year, when he struggled, Escobar hit fewer ground balls and more fly balls, which resulted in a much lower BABIP, and the worst batting line in the majors.
Using that information, you might guess that Escobar is hitting ground balls at a high rate, while also cutting down on fly balls. That guess would be wrong. Thus far, Escobar’s ground ball rate sits at just 40.9%, while his fly ball rate is at 36.4%. In 2013, those rates were 46% and 30.9%, respectively, so the Royals’ shortstop is actually continuing what we would probably think was a negative trend. Instead of seeing poor results, though, Escobar is thriving with this current batted ball mix.
And it’s at this point where I begin to see regression on the horizon.
We know Escobar won’t continue at his current pace, obviously, so my predicting a regression isn’t some incredibly complicated sabermetric conclusion. I’ve said before that I expected Escobar to be better than he was in 2013, but there is no evidence to suggest he’ll be this good for all of 2014. I did think he needed to cut down on fly balls to improve his batted ball luck, so the fact that he has hit fly balls more often this year is a bit concerning. His batted ball luck has improved, but that’s been entirely due to a BABIP of .389 on ground balls. In his previous 4 seasons, the highest ground ball BABIP Escobar posted was .259 in 2012, so it’s safe to say that what Escobar is doing is unsustainable.
With Escobar’s lack of plate discipline, he can go into long cold stretches when the BABIP Fairy isn’t happy with him, since he doesn’t have any other on-base skills. Fly balls always result in a lower BABIP, and Escobar’s production on fly balls will likely be even lower than the average, because he doesn’t have a ton of power. So unless Escobar starts driving the ball out of the park consistently, or starts hitting line drives even more frequently, he’s going to see his offense begin to slide back once his BABIP normalizes.
Remember how I said I liked to talk about positive things? Well, here’s something: Escobar’s offense has picked up the slack from some of the underperformers in the lineup, and the team is currently sitting above .500. It’s not a great thing to have Alcides Escobar leading the team in wRC+, but despite the rest of the offense’s problems, the Royals have found ways to win more games than they’ve lost so far. If and when guys like Butler, Moose, Gordon, and Hosmer start hitting like they’re capable of hitting, the team can afford to see some of the inevitable regression from Escobar.