Kansas City shortstop Alcides Escobar’s defense might be fun to watch this season, but Royals fans shouldn’t go too far in their admiration for the 24-year-old.
With as horrible as his bat has been, Escobar needs to field at a gold-glove caliber to have any value on a major-league team.
So just how bad has Escobar been at the plate this year?
Entering Thursday’s game, among players who qualify for the batting title (having at least 3.1 plate appearances per team game played):
• His .212 average ranked 12th-worst among all players. Unfortunately, average is Escobar’s best offensive statistic.
• His on-base percentage of .249 was fourth-worst among all players.
• His slugging percentage of .249 is worst among all players. He is one of only four players that qualify for the batting title without a triple or a home run this season. Of Escobar’s 41 hits, he’s managed 34 singles and seven doubles.
• FanGraphs.com has a statistic called “weighted runs created plus” that measures a player’s total offensive value compared to league average. With the statistic, 100 is average and every point below is a percentage point below league average.
So far this season, Escobar’s wRC+ is 31, meaning he is 69-percent worse at creating runs than the average MLB player.
Last year, Baltimore’s Cesar Izturis had the worst wRC+ at 46, and he was the only player under 60 in the statistic.
In fact, no player that has qualified for the batting title has posted a 31 or lower in wRC+ since Minnesota Twins catcher Matt Walbeck back in 1994 — some 17 seasons ago.
Escobar’s flashy glovework is hiding the fact that the Royals are trotting out one of the worst MLB hitters of the last two decades almost every day.
I’m sure part of the reason the Royals wanted to acquire Escobar was the hope that he could improve his hitting.
Last season, Escobar’s slash line (average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) was .235/.288/.326, and that was in his first full MLB season.
Unfortunately for K.C., Escobar appears to be regressing and not progressing.
Despite having an awful average and no power, Escobar is swinging more often than ever. After swinging at 32 percent of the pitches outside of the strike zone last year, he’s swiping at 36 percent of those non-strikes this year to rank in the top 25 of all MLB hitters.
Consequently, his walk percentage is down from 6.5 last year to 4.3 percent this year — tied for 15th-worst in the majors.
Escobar’s numbers don’t even stack up well against former Royal (and much-maligned) Tony Pena Jr., who posted a slash line of .228/.247/.298 during his three seasons with the Royals.
Escobar’s slash line this year? It’s .212/.249/.249.
Even though he’s perhaps the best defensive shortstop in baseball, Escobar still is a below-average player overall.
One of the most common stats used to measure a player is “wins above replacement,” which attempts to summarize a player’s total contributions to his team. An average full-time position player is worth about 2 WAR per season.
According to FanGraphs, Escobar’s WAR this year is -0.1.
It’s estimated that a team with all 0 WAR players would go about 48-114 over a full season.
There are some small reasons for hope. As mentioned above, Escobar still is only 24. He appears to be an unlucky hitter so far this year, as only 24.1 percent of the balls he’s put in play have gone for hits (MLB average is around 30 percent). He’s also striking out slightly less this season compared to last while making more contact on pitches in the strike zone.
The problem is, Escobar has a long ways to go to even become a below-average MLB hitter. That would most likely require either a boost in power or an increase in plate discipline — two skills that might be tough to teach a skinny shortstop that has a history of being a free-swinger.
Royals fans shouldn’t just enjoy these defensive plays that Escobar is making — they should expect them.
If a player isn’t going to hit for average, get on base or hit for power, then his defense had better be pretty darned impressive.