The Royals were wise to lock up Alcides Escobar for the foreseeable future. Talented, young shortstops don’t grow on trees and Escobar will help the team through his own performance, or as a trade chip given his age and the team-friendly nature of the contract.
As Carson Cistulli analyzed on Friday, the Royals will pay the 25-year old shortstop $10.5 million over the next four years. The deal buys out his final year before arbitration eligibility and all three of his eligible years. He is set to make $1 million in 2012 and then $3 million per season from 2013-15. The contract also includes two club options for 2016-17 at a grand total of $11.75 million.
Realistically, the options are where the Royals potentially got a steal. If Escobar continues to develop and actually improves at the plate, he probably would have made between $9-$12 million through arbitration anyway. However, he would then be in line for a larger payday, whether it came through free agency or a new deal negotiated beforehand. If everything works out according to the Royals plan, Escobar will easily merit the $11.75 million owed in 2016-17, which is worth the reasonable risk that he doesn’t even live up to the $10 million through the 2015 season.
But speculating that far down the road is difficult, especially in the case of an all-glove/no-bat player like Escobar. While defense isn’t necessarily one of those performance attributes that erodes early, it would certainly help his value if Escobar could improve at the plate. Should the Royals expect such an improvement?
His glovework is top-notch. Scouts praise his efforts, and the various statistical systems rated him in the +7 to +10 range last season. But when a +10 fielding mark results in just 2 WAR over a full season, we’re dealing with an extremely poor hitter.
Over the last three seasons, Escobar has a .251/.294/.338 line and a .280 wOBA that ranks third worst among the 225 qualifying hitters. His ISO is microscopically low and his walk rate is among the worst in the sport. His contact rate over the same span — 85.3% — falls closer to the median than the top of the list, so he doesn’t even have that going for him; sometimes, poor-hitting shortstops like, say, Yuniesky Betancourt, can look better than they actually are due to a high contact rate. That can’t be said of Escobar.
On the other hand, he is still young and without much major league experience, and last year’s .282 wOBA was an improvement over the .270 mark from the prior year. It’s possible further improvements are around the corner.
To find out what the Royals can expect moving forward, I searched for historical comps: middle infielders with poor OBPs and wOBAs over their first three seasons, who debuted before turning 24 years old. Nothing was specified with regards to OBP or wOBA yet.
From 1950-2010, there were 92 players fitting the above criteria who also managed to play at least two more seasons. Here are their weighted average OBP and wOBA marks over the five seasons:
The overall group gradually improved in both departments to respectable levels. However, the overall results are misleading in that half the group more closely resembled Escobar than the other. Over the first three years of the span, there were 43 players with an average OBP under .310. How does the same table look for those 43 players?
The OBPs and wOBAs essentially improve by the same amount as the overall group, but the starting point is so low that the end result looks much worse. There were a few players whose OBPs dramatically improved in their fourth and fifth seasons, but they are the exception and not the rule.
Dave Concepcion‘s average OBP improved by over 50 points from his first three years to his fourth and fifth. The same is true of Jose Reyes. The likes of Cesar Izturis, Roy McMillan, Omar Vizquel, Adam Kennedy, Robin Yount and Miguel Tejada aren’t far behind, with increases between 25 and 48 points. Vizquel is an interesting player with respect to Escobar, as he was primarily known for his glove. However, Vizquel’s bat may have been underrated relative to his defensive contributions. After posting a .290 OBP over his first three seasons, Vizquel produced a .349 OBP from 1992-2006.
The Royals might not expect that substantial of an improvement from Escobar, but they may view his career .294 mark and think it’s more likely that he improves to the .315-.320 range than it is that his defense declines. At that point, they have a legitimate 2.5+ WAR shortstop locked up at affordable rates through the 2017 season. Historically, players similar to Escobar haven’t improved much at the plate, but there are several notable exceptions to the rule. Luckily for them, Escobar doesn’t have to improve as dramatically as Concepcion or Reyes to merit his new contract.