Over the past four seasons, Alcides Escobar has played more games at shortstop than anyone else in the majors. To my eyes, Escobar has played the position well. Yes, there are some mental gaffes on routine plays here and there, but there is also a long list of outstanding, eye-popping, just damn good highlight plays.
While you should probably just trust my judgment, a more reality based approach would lead you to the defensive metrics. Those like, but don’t love, Alcides Escobar. Over the past four years – a decent sample size from which to view these – Escobar is 8th in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved and 9th in Ultimate Zone Rating. Good, not great.
Don’t like the above metrics? Think maybe all the shifting that goes on these days has bled into inconsistent data? Possible, likely, a little, shut up? You want to go old school? Alcides Escobar, over the last four seasons, ranks 8th in Fielding Percentage (a stat that tells you pretty much how often a guy makes a play that the official scorer can in no way manufacture something that made said play even slightly challenging).
Inside Edge Fielding is a little more interesting, but subjective in that a human decides if the chances of making a play is remote, unlikely, about even, likely or almost certain. In these categories – based on data from the last three seasons – Alcides Escobar has made a higher percentage of the ‘remote’ category plays than any other shortstop. He ranks third in those deemed unlikely and fifth in those where the chances were considered about even. There are your highlights and, not surprisingly, the reason the metrics don’t love Alcides is that he is just 18th in percentage of plays that are considered ‘almost certain’ to be made.
That said, we all know defense is not the issue with Alcides Escobar. He is without question better than average in the field. Almost certainly at least good with the glove and, quite possibly, great at it. Pretty clearly, Alcides Escobar can more than do the job at shortstop.
Another thing that is not a problem with Escobar is baserunning. His skills there get overshadowed by the pure speed of Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson and the incredible athleticism of Lorenzo Cain, but Escobar is outstanding. Using Fangraphs BsR metric for baserunning, Escobar was 12th in the majors last season and ranks 6th over the past four seasons combined. That ain’t bad, kids.
Of course, it is the bat that makes us all wonder. You can sum up Escobar just by looking at this graph comparing his on-base percentage to the league average:
Obviously, throw out 2008 as there is simply not enough data to be worth talking about it, but since then you see Escobar flirt between league average and below average. This is on-base percentage, but pick a stat, any stat and you get a graph that looks similar. I’m not joking, average, slugging, ISO, wOBA…whatever.
The driver is BABIP, which is no surprise. When Escobar’s BABIP is over .300 as it was in 2012 (.344) and 2014 (.326), his offense flirts with league average. That, combined with his defense and baserunning, then makes him a valuable commodity (2.2 and 3.4 fWAR). When the BABIP sags, so does the offense and Alcides becomes considerably less valuable.
The thing about Escobar’s batting average of balls in play is that there seems to be little reason for the fluctuations. His line drive percentage over the last three years (2 average and 1 below average offensive campaigns) are remarkably close. If you feel like 2014 was a ‘turn the corner’ offensive season for Alcides, you might want to be mindful that his groundball rate was at a career low, as was his walk rate.
One can hang their hat on a marginally lower swing percentages on pitches outside the strike zone in his two good years (2012 and 14). However, while 2014 sported his highest contact percentage on pitches in the zone, Escobar recorded his lowest contact percentage in the zone in his other good offensive season. If BABIP is a reflection of luck, then Alcides Escobar may be its poster child. With 3,200 plate appearances on his resume, the Royals’ shortstop is unlikely to suddenly blossom into a consistent on-base guy year in year out and probably that is okay.
Slated to earn $3 million in 2015, Escobar will be worth the money strictly on his ability to run the bases, play the field and, yes, bunt. That is only half sarcastic, by the way, as Alcides is an excellent bunter. He was 11th in the majors in bunt hits in 2014 and 12th in that category over the last four seasons. Over the past four seasons, Escobar is 2nd in sacrifices and was 7th in the majors last year. Ned Yost smirks in your general direction.
In the new landscape of baseball, where defense and pitching have overtaken hitting the ball over the wall in importance, the 2014 version of Alcides Escobar works just fine. Take heed, my friends, because just the season before, your World Series lead-off hitter posted an on-base percentage of just .259. He was still worth 1.1 fWAR that season, but I’ll take the 3.4 fWAR of 2014 if you ask. Given their off-season, the Royals need the 2014 Escobar to make a repeat performance in 2015.