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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?

Jered Weaver vs. Edinson Volquez and Perception vs. Reality

At first, I thought of beginning this with a game of blind resume, but c’mon! You read the title! Not only did you read the title, when you did so you more than likely had one of two reactions. If you are a sabermetrics enthusiast, perhaps your first thought was of two relatively comparable pitchers in terms of effectiveness. If traditional statistics are more of your thing, or if you’re Jack Zduriencik, this comparison would seem highly ridiculous to you. However, are these two players, Weaver and Volquez, really all that different? Well, once you strip away all of the labels, preconceived notions, and flaw-laden statistics, the answer may just be that no, they aren’t.

Let me begin this by acknowledging that Jered Weaver is inarguably more accomplished than Edinson Volquez. His highs have been higher, and his lows not nearly as low. Player evaluation isn’t about the past, however, it’s about the future, and a closer look suggests that the future may in fact be brighter for Volquez than for Weaver. ERA may not be a completely useless statistic, after all, what is more important for a pitcher than avoiding the allowance of runs, but it certainly is no good at predicting future pitching success. So yes, while Weaver’s ERA of 3.27 suggests he is an ace, and Volquez’s mark of 5.71 suggests he shouldn’t even be in the league, xFIP, a stat far superior to ERA when it comes to forecasting what the future holds, tells an entirely different story. Believe it or not, despite the massive disparity in ERA, it was Volquez who possessed the stronger xFIP last season at 4.07 to Weaver’s 4.31. It is interesting that once the variable that is team defense is removed, the two pitchers now appear remarkably similar. Additionally, SIERA paints a similar picture. While Weaver’s number is slightly better in this case, 4.22 to 4.34, that difference is negligible in comparison to the difference in ERA.

Another signal that these two pitchers are not nearly as different as one might think is BABIP. It is worth nothing that Weaver has always sustained BABIP numbers well below average, for his career he sits at .271. Meanwhile, Volquez has consistently been above the league average at .306 for his career. However, one key sign suggests that both of these players could begin to see a reversal of fortune when it comes to balls hit in play. Last season, Edinson Volquez owned a line drive rate of 22.8%. While it is true that higher line drive rates might lead a pitcher to have a higher BABIP, Jered Weaver was less than one half of a percent better, at 22.4%. In all likelihood, Volquez’s BABIP of .325 from last season will not be quite as high this season, while Weaver’s mark of .268 may very well increase a bit.

Perhaps the single most concerning factor for Jered Weaver is his declining velocity. While Edinson Volquez is also experiencing a dip in his velocity, it is occurring at a glacial pace relative to Weaver. Since 2010, Weaver has seen his average fastball go from 89.9 MPH, not all that impressive to begin with, to 86.5 last season. That is a difference of 3.4 MPH, a frightening decline to say the least, especially for a player who is already struggling to strike out batters to begin with(6.82 K/9 last season.) Meanwhile, Volquez has only experienced a 1.1 MPH decline in that same timeframe, and last season threw his average fastball a staggering 6 MPH faster than Weaver did. It’s not as if Weaver is a decade older than Volquez either, as they are separated by less than a year. Edinson Volquez is aging better than Jered Weaver. It’s just that simple.

One final worrisome element of Jered Weaver’s game lies in his extreme fly-ball tendency, an issue that will only become worse given the aforementioned loss in velocity. Last season, he posted a FB% of 46.8, a higher percentage than fly ball artist Aaron Harang, who sat at 44.3%. As a general rule of thumb, when you’re surrendering more fly balls than Aaron Harang, you’re surrendering too many fly balls. By contrast, Edinson Volquez is extremely effective when it comes to keeping the ball out of the air and on the ground. Last season, he ranked 16th among qualified starters in terms of avoiding fly balls, achieving an excellent FB% of 29.6. You don’t need to be a mathematician to know that the difference between 46.8% and 29.6% is a significant one.

By no means was the purpose of this piece to disparage Jered Weaver, nor to pretend that Edinson Volquez is flawless. Simply, to point out an example of two players who have inexplicably gained reputations they do not deserve. Jered Weaver is a good major league pitcher, nothing more, and the numbers prove that to be so. Similarly, while Edinson Volquez may never be described as overly reliable or consistent, he is nowhere near the train wreck some like to make him out to be, regardless of whether his ERA says otherwise. His ERA is surface and his ERA is noise. His peripherals are substance, and they are what truly matter.

Why David Murphy is the Most Underrated Signing of the Offseason

On November 20th, the Cleveland Indians signed outfielder David Murphy to a 2 year/12 million dollar contract, hoping to see a bounce-back pair of seasons from him after an atrocious 2013. There is always risk involved when signing a player coming off of such a bad season, and it certainly doesn’t help that Murphy is on the wrong side of 30, but nonetheless, this was a wise allocation of resources by the Tribe.

After, for the most part, reaching base at a very solid clip in the years 2010-2012, posting OBPs of .358, .328, and .380, he plummeted to .282 in 2013. Additionally, he saw his wRC+ decrease from 129 in 2012 to a dreadful 73 in 2013. Suddenly, he was dangerously close to being nothing more than a replacement-level player, posting an unimpressive WAR of 0.4 despite playing 142 games. This sharp decline coming just one season after achieving a WAR of 3.9, suggesting he was closer to stardom than replacement level. How did this happen to Murphy? While it is difficult to quantify the effect of, as Murphy puts it, “Putting pressure on myself to step into a role and play a bigger part in the offense,” one thing is for sure: Murphy had horrendous luck in 2013. The sabermetrics community is becoming increasingly aware that BABIP involves many factors besides a player’s luck, so perhaps Murphy’s putrid .220 BABIP cannot simply be written off as nothing more than bad fortune. Then again, perhaps it can, as Murphy also posted a .295 xBABIP, suggesting that he made solid enough contact to achieve roughly a league average BABIP.

This is especially important considering that, even in a down 2013 for Murphy, he still did a stellar job of putting the ball in play with a K% of 12.4 compared to the league average of 18.5. This of course suggests that, given his propensity to put the ball in play, an increased BABIP would yield even more dramatic results than it would for most players. To put into context just how impressive that strikeout rate is, it is superior to that of both Miguel Cabrera (14.4%) and Mike Trout (19%). By no means does this make Murphy a better player than Trout or Cabrera, as Murphy is no superstar, but he sure does avoid strikeouts like one.

Not only does he put the ball in play, his power is not yet on the decline. While no one would describe David Murphy as a slugger, he’s no Ben Revere, either. For evidence of this, one need look no further than to his ISO, which has stood above what FanGraphs defines as the league average of .145 in all but one of his six full major league seasons. Obviously, he possesses a nice combination of good power and excellent contact skills. Furthermore, let’s say he posted a .295 BABIP to correlate with his xBABIP. As a result, his OBP would see an impressive uptick from .282 to a comparatively robust .332, just about in line with his career mark of.337. Or, in other words, only .007 points worse than Hunter Pence. Perception is a funny thing, isn’t it?

Certainly, we are talking about a player who will see a healthy progression in his offense from last season to this, but what about Murphy’s defense? Well, it turns out he is steady with the glove as well. While he has played most of his career in left field, all signs point to him spending most of this season in right field for the Indians. This should be no problem, as his UZR/150 in right field of 10.3 for his career is a clear indicator that he is more than capable of manning the position. In fact, that mark is actually greater than his UZR/150 in left field, 6.1. These numbers do not quite reflect defensive wizardry, but as seems to be the case with almost every element of Murphy’s game, paint a picture of a solid, reliable player.

Assuming Murphy experiences an offensive rebound of sorts, as the numbers suggest he should, and continues his well-above-average glove work, one could reasonably project him to be worth somewhere between two and three wins this upcoming season. Considering that the price of one WAR is thought to be somewhere in the six million dollar range, and that Murphy will receive a six million dollar annual salary in his two-year pact with the Tribe, he has a chance to be worth in excess of two times what he is being paid. Simply put, this addition was a savvy one by GM Chris Antonetti. There have been flashier signings this offseason, and hindsight is 20/20, but perhaps in the year 2020, when the Mariners are still on the hook for 96 million dollars worth of 37 year old, near replacement level Robinson Cano, they and heavy-spending teams like them might wish they had chosen the route the Indians did this winter. The bargain bin isn’t sexy, but it will undoubtedly prove to be a wise, cost-effective approach for the Indians in the case of Murphy.