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Alcides Escobar and the Most Unusual Skillset in Baseball

When I first began this piece, the idea was to title it “Who Has the Most Unusual Skillset in Baseball?” then to spend the majority of the time referring to several players and choosing one, based on statistical evidence, that best fit the bill. However, upon seeing what Alcides Escobar accomplished last season, good, bad, and ugly, there really was no argument to be made for anyone else.

Now, when I say unusual, what I am looking for is a player who somehow possesses incredible strengths and infuriating weaknesses at the same time.  In other words, the complete opposite of balance and well-roundedness. When it comes to Escobar, he has tremendous skills in the field, is electric on the base paths, and may very well be the worst hitter in all of baseball.

Let’s begin with Escobar’s defense. Last season, he was unquestionably one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball. Andrelton Simmons is better than everyone, we know that, but only he and Yunel Escobar bested Alcides Escobar’s UZR/150 of 12.1. Admittedly, if we turn to DRS, Alcides Escobar looks less impressive. Still, he is pegged by DRS as an excellent defender. He finished 2013 7th among 21 qualified shortstops, right behind Troy Tulowitzki and ahead of Yunel Escobar. Overall, while he’s not Andrelton Simmons, and may not even be the best defensive shortstop not named Andrelton Simmons, almost every defensive metric rates him as a well above average to elite defensive player.

Now, in the spirit of beginning and ending with a positive, this is the time where we must address Alcides Escobar’s hitting. Escobar is the worst hitter in almost every relevant statistic. His ISO of .066 ranked second to last in the league among qualified players, only greater than Elvis Andrus, and we know what kind of power he has. His OBP of .259 was the worst in baseball. (That’s a bad batting average!) His walk rate of 3% was the second worst, superior to only A.J Pierzynski. His wOBA of .247 was easily the worst in baseball, and as a result, his wRC+ of 49 was the worst in the game as well, less than half of what is considered average and the worst mark since Caesar Izturis in 2010. This paragraph feels less and less like a paragraph and more like a checklist of offensive ineptitude. Sure, the argument can be made that Escobar will be slightly less horrible at the plate in 2014, thanks to a depressed BABIP of .264 last season, but aren’t we past that point with him? He did have a BABIP of .344 in 2012, but that was an aberration. Despite his impactful speed, in four full major league seasons, the rest of his BABIP marks are well below .290, including an identical to last season mark of .264 in 2010. Even if his BABIP were to skyrocket from his mostly uninspiring career numbers to above average, something like .300-.305 (unlikely to happen) he would still struggle mightily as a hitter given his lack of power and inability to draw walks.

Now back to a strength of Escobar’s, baserunning. While it is often more difficult to analyze the positive or negative contributions of a player on the base paths, the statistics at our disposal clearly show that Escobar is a difference maker when he reaches base. While 22 stolen bases may not seem like an incredible total, it did tie him for 18th in the league. Also, he was never caught. Not even once! That is an awesome display of efficiency. Beyond that, there are metrics that suggest he is far better than the 18th best base runner. Starting with UBR, which pegs him as the 14th best at 4.0. Not surprisingly, metrics that factor in base stealing look even more fondly upon his work. This includes BsR, or baserunning runs above average, where his score of 8.0 ranked him fifth in the Majors. wSB isn’t far behind, as he comes in at 6th there, at 3.9. The last two stats speak volumes to just how crucial efficient base-stealing is relative to volume base-stealing. Depending on which statistics you value most, Escobar rates as somewhere between a top 20 base runner, to as high as the top five, making him one of the few true difference makers on the bases.

Now that we have examined each element of his game, the question becomes: Given his strengths and weaknesses, what is his value? Does his hitting negate his other contributions, or is he still a positive player? This is why I love WAR! Without it, it would be nearly impossible to even estimate the value of a player like this, given how impactful he is whenever he is on the field, for better or worse. While FanGraphs has him as having been a shade above a one win player in 2013 with a 1.1 WAR, Baseball Reference isn’t nearly as generous, where his WAR was 0.3. Neither of these numbers are particularly impressive, but the 0.3 is especially concerning.

It’s not as if, over the course of his career, he has been much more valuable, either. Based on WAR, FanGraphs views 2012 as Escobar’s best season, with a WAR of 2.1. The problem is, as covered previously, that was the season where his offensive production ballooned to near-league average level (96 wRC+) thanks in large part to a .344 BABIP, something he is highly unlikely to replicate.  It only gets worse when you realize that, while his WAR is reflective of a late game defensive replacement/pinch runner, he was far from that in 2013. He played in 158 games, and somehow managed to compile 642 plate appearances!

It seems that Escobar would fit best as a bench player in the Brendan Ryan/Nick Punto mold. This would require him to be with a team that gets impressive offensive production from the shortstop position, so as to hide his hitting flaws, but is not nearly as impressive on the defensive side, allowing him to contribute in that way. In his current role, however, where he is forced to be the everyday shortstop for a Royals team attempting to compete, he is at best a non-factor.  Isn’t it funny how that’s what we discover about a player who is the complete opposite of a non-factor in everything he does?