The shortstop for the Kansas City Royals, Alcides Escobar, seemingly has settled into the second spot in the batting order. After a rare o-4 game last night against Cleveland (only his 6th 0-fer in his first 23 games), Escobar’s batting average sits at .290., just below his .293 mark in 2012. As we all know, there is more to being a successful hitter in the major leagues than batting average. Has Escobar turned into a valuable major league hitter?
Twenty-three April games, and only 102 plate appearances, is certainly a small sample size but there are some real positive signs that Alcides Escobar is starting to put some things together that will make him a viable offensive player in the majors. He has been ever so slightly more patient thus far, walking 7 times (not counting the one time he was walked intentionally). That puts his Base On Ball Rate at 6.9% for the season thus far, which if maintained throughout the season, would be a career high. Now this number is not a great one (it should be close to 10%), but it is a significant increase from the 4.2% over his previous two seasons with the Royals. It has helped raise is On-Base Percentage to .337. Again, this isn’t a fantastic mark, but it follows a path of improvement in this area every single season since 2010, his first full season in the majors.
Another great indicator that Escobar is improving his bat control is that his number of strike outs this season is down significantly. He struck out 100 times in 648 plate appearances in 2012, 15.4% of the time, a number far too high for a a light hitter with only 5 home runs and a .390 SLG%. This year, in a much smaller sampling, Alcides has only struck out 8 times, a sparkling 7.8%. Better patience and less strikeouts are always a great sign in 26-year old player.
How real is Escobar’s average this season? Right now, it stands at .290, just a few percentage points below 2012′s .293. Is he really a .290 hitter? The numbers not only say “Yes”, but they also indicate they could actually improve. Last season, on his way to that .293 mark, he had an extremely high Batting Average on Ball in Play (BABIP) – .344. The league average is usually right around .300. In 2013, Escobar has actually been slightly unlucky with a BABIP of only .289. Now, part of this fall has been caused by the fact that his Ground Ball Rate and his Line Drive Rate have both dropped slightly. Usually players who with high GB% and LD% will have higher BABIP, as it is easier to get a base hit with these types of batted balls than it is with fly balls. Even with the small drops, his rates of 49.4 (GB%) and 22.4% (LD%) are on the high side. His BABIP should be higher so he has been just a little bit unlucky. If he maintains those rates, and his luck improves back to the mean, his average should rise as well.
One other part of Escobar’s game that has gone untapped in 2013 is his ability to bunt for hits. Last season, he attempted to bunt for a hit 27 times and he was successful 11 times – a .407 clip (which also helped boost his BABIP, by the way). This season, he has not utilized this skill much, only attempting 2 bunts, both unsuccessful. Part of this drop is because Alcides overall skill with the bat is improving, causing less need to bunt for a hit. If he slides into a slump of any length, we will probably see a few more bunt attempts.
One more part of Escobar’s game has been better this April – his power. Going into this season, he only had 14 career home runs in 1,788 career at bats. This April, he has hit 3 in 93 at bats. Not only has his Fly Ball rate jumped from 23.7% in 2012 to 28.2% in 2013 (still very low), his Home Run to Fly Ball Rate has nearly tripled from 4.3% to 12.5%, which means he is getting more pop on his fly balls. Now, it would be very surprising if his HR/FB% stayed over 10% all season, because that is a huge jump for any player, but it does indicate that from a skill point of view, 12 home runs from Alcides is a possibility. He is also on pace for 40 doubles on the year, which also is a good indicator of better contact and more power. Is overall SLG% thus far in 2013 is .452, which is much higher than the career high of .390 he set last season.
One thing that is still a constant with Escobar is his speed. After stealing 35 bases on just 40 attempts last season, he is 5-for-5 in 2013. He now has stolen 80 bases in 100 attempts in his career, which is the 50th most successful stolen base rate since 1951 (Carlos Beltran is 4th on this list at 86.4%, and Willie Wilson is 15th at 83.3%).
Even if all these numbers and stats turn out to be the result of a small sample size, there is indication that Alcides Escobar is becoming a better all around hitter than he has been in the past. If he can maintain even a fraction of these improvements throughout the long season ahead, he will a step closer to becoming a force in the Royals line-up. If he can produce 12 home runs and 40 doubles, while maintaining a .290 average – watch out! The Royals will have one of the better hitting shortstops in the majors in Alcides Escobar.