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Escobar and Cain

Alcides Escobar didn’t hit at all in 2010. Lorenzo Cain hit better than expected once he reached the big leagues. In both instances, I think we can say that their 2010 performances were among the chief reasons they were traded to Kansas City over the weekend. If Escobar had hit like he was expected to, Milwaukee would have been loath to give him up. If Cain hadn’t hit .300 upon reaching the majors, his stock probably wouldn’t have been high enough to make him a main piece in a trade for Zack Greinke.

However, a look beyond their slash lines shows that Escobar and Cain weren’t all that different offensively last year. Escobar’s walk rate was marginally better, but that difference is just the intentional walks he was issued as an occasional benefactor of the eighth spot in an NL line-up. Escobar struck out a little less, but their contact rates were basically the same. Neither showed much power, as they combined for a whopping five home runs.

The difference in their batting lines is almost entirely due to their rate of hitting singles. In some cases, this is a skill, as some players are simply better singles hitters than others. In this case, however, it looks a lot more like luck.

The main cause of Escobar’s pitiful 2010 slash line? His .613 batting average on line drives, second worst in baseball among full time players – only Carlos Lee (.612) had a worse outcome on line drives. Of the 93 balls he hit hard enough to be judged liners, he only ended up with 57 hits. The league average is around .725 in most years, and the year-to-year correlation in BA on line drives is a minuscule .015, as the results appear to be mostly random. If Escobar had gotten hits on 72.5 percent of his line drives, he’d have ended up with an extra 10 base hits, and his average would have been .255 instead of .235.

Cain is exactly the opposite. He got better than expected results on his line drives, coming out with 19 hits on 24 liners, a .792 average. If we adjust his BA on LD down to .725 as well, his batting average would drop from .306 to .293. If we accept that hitters don’t have much control over whether they get hits on line drives, which both the numbers and our experiences should agree with, the 70-point gap in batting average between Escobar and Cain gets cut nearly in half.

There’s even more bad news for those hoping for Cain to repeat his 2010 line again, however. He had a .340 batting average on ground balls last year, which was also among the highest in baseball. He is fast, so we’d expect him to do better on grounders than average, but no one has been able to sustain a .340 average on ground balls for any length of time.

The highest BA on GBs from 2002 to 2010 is Ichiro Suzuki, not surprisingly, but he comes in at just .311. Matt Holliday is the only other guy to hit .300 on grounders, as he hit exactly that. It continues to fall off quickly from there. For instance, Chone Figgins has the fifth-highest average on grounders since ’02, but has hit just .272, not that far from the .245 league average. While fast guys can eek out more infield hits, and thus improve their average on grounders, it doesn’t seem like they can do it often enough to push themselves that far away from the pack.

With significant improvement, Cain is in for a pretty big step back offensively in 2011. Escobar is almost certainly going to see his numbers improve, and probably by a significant margin. I wouldn’t be surprised if Escobar had a better slash line than Cain next year, in fact. Both will need to add either walks or power to their repertoire if they want to become stars, but if you’re going to bet on either of the two position players that KC acquired this weekend, bet on Escobar. Their 2010 slash lines don’t reflect their real abilities.