Since breaking into the major leagues with the Atlanta Braves in 2007, Yunel Escobar has established himself as an above-average major league shortstop. He has shown the ability to hit for a good average and solid power while showing good plate discipline, and while he isn’t nearly the stolen base threat many shortstops are, he has added plenty of value to his teams with great defense. But while all that talent is clearly there and we have even seen Escobar put it all for extended stretches, he continued to befuddle teams and fans alike with a lack of maturity, too many lapses of focus, and just an overall sense that he could completely come apart at any moment. Nevertheless, Escobar is a player the Rays were excited to acquire this offseason, and in fact, they’ve been attempting to acquire him for quite a while. As R.J. Anderson of the Process Report wrote last week, Andrew Friedman acknowledged that the Rays were talking to the Toronto Blue Jays about Escobar before he was traded to the Miami Marlins, and a league source told Anderson that the Rays even made a bid to acquire Escobar back in 2010 before the Braves traded him to the Blue Jays. Escobar is a player who has infatuated the Rays for a long time. Why is that and why did the Rays execute a deal specifically this offseason? Escobar is coming off a horrific season in Toronto, managing just a .253/.300/.344 line (75 OPS+) in 608 plate appearances, and his season was further marred when he was suspended three games for writing a gay slur in Spanish on his eye black. He’s 30 years old now and the enigmatic tendencies that have plagued him his entire career don’t look they’re going anywhere. Why are the Rays so excited about this guy?
The Rays had an opportunity to get a player with the ability to be a well above-average major league shortstop at the lowest his value was ever going to be, and although Derek Dietrich is a good prospect, they were ecstatic to trade him away to get Escobar from the Marlins. He may have immaturity issues, but Joe Maddon, Jose Molina, and others have talked about the fact that his immaturity issues may have been blown out of proportion and that playing under a laid back manager like Maddon might be exactly what he needs. And even though Escobar is coming off a poor season, his upside remains tremendous. Maddon described him as capable of being an All-Star and winning a Gold Glove, and if everything clicks for him, that’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Even from a purely statistical standpoint and disregarding the issues of his maturity, Escobar could be primed for a big bounce-back season in 2013. In 2012, Escobar struck out just 70 times, an excellent rate of just 11% of his plate appearances just like what’s he has done his entire career, but he walked only 35 times, just 5.8% of his PA’s and well below his 8.9% career average. A 29 year old doesn’t suddenly lose all of his plate discipline out of nowhere. And whatever the reason it happened, the lack of plate discipline didn’t just hurt Escobar’s on-base percentage but also had a domino effect in the rest of Escobar’s offensive game, preventing him from finding pitches to hit and making the quality of contact he has made his entire career and hitting for average or power. If Escobar can simply get back to his career walk rate, everything else should fall back into place. How will that happen? Of course, now we have to go back to Escobar’s maturity. Escobar’s lack of plate discipline had to do with a variety of factors, but among them had to be frustration from his early-season struggles (he managed just a .216/.257/.275 line in April in 2012). Look at Escobar’s OPS and walk to strikeout ratio by month and something immediately becomes clear.
Looking at the graph, we see that Escobar rebounded from his horrific April with an uptick in performance in May and June, and that coincided with a much better walk to strikeout ratio. But from June to the end of the season, Escobar’s OPS basically flat-lined and he just gave up because it seemed like no matter what he did, he just couldn’t buy a break and he got increasingly incensed. Escobar’s batting average on balls in play of .273 on the season was the lowest of his career and well below his .306 career average. Part of that was because his decreased walk rate meant he couldn’t make as good contact as he had in the past, as we talked about above. But even with that in mind, Escobar had really bad luck in 2012. Using Escobar’s isolated power by year to predict his BAbip, we have a pretty strong correlation (r= .69) and we would have expected his BAbip to be .304 with a .091 ISO compared to his .108 career ISO. Taking out his .364 BAbip from his 355 plate appearances his rookie year, and we now have an extremely strong correlation between ISO and BAbip (r= .99), and we would expect his BAbip to be .298 from a .091 ISO. If we plugged in a .298 BAbip for Escobar’s 2012, his batting average would have a more reasonable .274 even if what was by all accounts a down year. Even if all of the hits he would have gotten would have been singles, his batting line would have been .274/.322/.360 (85 OPS+), which would still be well below his career averages but not nearly as bad as the numbers Escobar actually put up. Yunel Escobar is a player who will probably benefit from a change of scenery. But with a fresh start after a slump to begin 2012 bogged him down and a little better luck, Escobar has the ability to be much better in 2013 even if his maturity doesn’t make a sudden breakthrough.
The last time the Rays had anything remotely resembling an average starting shortstop for an entire season was way back in 2010, Jason Bartlett‘s last year in Tampa Bay (and to this point, his lack productive year in the major leagues). Yunel Escobar will do that even in his realistic worst-case scenario for 2013. The Rays would be satisfied with that, but they believe he can be quite a bit more. If Escobar gets himself together mentally, he could deliver an All-Star season. And even if Escobar remains enigmatic, with a mulligan on his rough 2012 season and more luck on his side, he could give the Rays maybe not a star shortstop but still a very productive one, and the Rays would be thrilled if he gave them just that.