For a season and a half, Kansas City Royals fans were subjected to the fall-down range and errant arm of Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop. Hoppers hit to his left were all but guaranteed base hits, and booted would-be double play balls gave opponents extra chances to pummel the pitching staff. Those defensive woes were supposed to end in 2011 with Alcides Escobar, picked up from the Brewers as part of the Zack Greinke mega-deal, taking over at short for the Royals.
Escobar, a former top 20 prospect who Baseball America said “was born to play shortstop,” has been as good as advertised with the glove. Unfortunately, his bat has been so bad that it has wiped out the value provided by his exquisite range, body control and cannon arm.
Pick a defensive metric, and the 24-year-old Escobar ranks near the top of the leader boards. By Ultimate Zone Rating, K.C.’s new shortstop has saved +5.4 runs compared to an average player at his position. That places him in the top 10 among all major leaguers and first among shortstops. The Fielding Bible’s Plus/Minus system has Escobar tied for the MLB lead with +9 runs saved.
While the Fielding Bible data shows him making a few less plays than the average shortstop on balls hit to his left, Escobar has a +14 play rating on balls hit to his right. Take last night’s contest with the Twins, for instance. Minnesota’s Alexi Casilla hit a Joakim Soria curveball deep in the hole at shortstop in the eighth inning. Escobar backed up to the lip of the infield dirt, barehanded the ball and made an accurate, near-side-arm throw with both feet planted that popped Eric Hosmer‘s glove at first base. He’s a joy to watch in the field.
When Escobar comes to the dish, however, you might want to shield your eyes. His triple-slash this season is .208/.244/.244 in 214 plate appearances. For reference, Greinke has a .176/.200/.412 line in 38 career PA. Greinke has out homered Escobar this year, 1-0. With -16.8 Batting Runs, Escobar has done more damage to his team’s run-scoring chances than any other hitter in the game.
Adjusted for park and league factors, Escobar’s bat has been the worst among those qualified for the batting title. Escobar’s 28 wRC+ to this point actually ranks as one of the 80 worst single-season marks in Major League Baseball dating back to 1876 (minimum 200 plate appearances). Limiting ourselves to the new millennium, Escobar’s performance is seventh-worst since the Y2K scare blew over. Tony Pena Jr., a Royals shortstop-turned-pitcher, tops this sordid list. Also, note that a certain San Francisco infielder currently doing a number on his club’s playoff chances joins Escobar in the top 10:
Despite Escobar’s breath-taking D at a premium position, his historically inept bat has made him a sub-replacement level player: he has -0.3 WAR in 2011. It would be nearly impossible for him not to show offensive improvement moving forward: ZiPS projects Escobar to hit .252/.295/.334 during for the rest of the season, with his batting average on balls in play rising to the mid-.280s from its current .240-ish mark.
Given the lower run-scoring environment, that batting line coupled with sublime defense would make Escobar a decent starter. If Escobar hits something close to that ZiPS projection while posting excellent defensive numbers (if not quite the otherworldly figures so far), he would be roughly a two-win player.
Don’t expect to see Escobar on a mound like Pena Jr. anytime soon — Escobar’s glove and youth make him a potential building block for the Royals. That said, he’s going to have to outhit Greinke and stop keeping offensive company with the Donnie Sadlers and Enrique Wilsons of the world to provide value in Kansas City.
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