Among the list of unique aspects that make the Rays standout in baseball is their ability to find players that other teams have underestimated and make those players feel accepted in Tampa Bay. Two of the best examples of this are newcomers first baseman James Loney and shortstop Yunel Escobar.
Between Escobar’s spirited leaps after making great defensive plays or Loney’s success at having one of the top batting averages in the AL this season, both players are proving critics wrong after the Rays were doubted for signing these two sensations in the offseason. Speaking to Roger Mooney of The Tampa Tribune, Ben Zobrist explained just how critical Escobar and Loney are, not just for their performance but their personabilities.
“They have been a huge part of our success this year. I think the personalities they bring to the club help balance things out, too. James is low-key, consistent, just a kind of chill personality, and you need that. And you also need the opposite, which is Yuni. He’s excited all the time. He’s a passionate player.”
That passion is exactly what makes Escobar a favorite with fans and fellow players.
“I love it,” David Price said. “He is a kid at heart….He’s one of my favorite teammates of all time.”
Between having trouble finding an everyday shortstop and first baseman Carlos Pena’s lack of offense last season, the Rays set out to find two bats that could also provide stability defensively and thrive in the looser clubhouse environment. When asked about Loney’s impressive numbers as a hitter, manager Joe Maddon is confident that he knows exactly what’s going on.
“If you pound it in to [Loney] to hit home runs, hit home runs, he’s going to hit less and play less. If you pound it into him to go out there and play, not worry about results and just be a baseball player, you’re going to be rewarded with a lot more.”
Prior to the All-Star break, Loney’s .315 batting average was tied with Baltimore Orioles’ Chris Davis. Loney still has his .315 average, while Davis’ is slightly down to .313. In early May, Loney led the AL while hitting .385 over Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera’s .381. First base is a position usually inhabited by major power threats and Loney is not a power hitter, which gained him much criticism from outsiders over the years. But the rest of Loney’s skill-set has more than made up for that between his great hitting, even if it’s mostly for singles, and his defense.
The past several years, getting strong defensive first basemen and hoping their bats come around has been a plan the Rays have commonly used. What Yunel Escobar is doing at shortstop this season, though, playing Gold Glove-caliber defense to go along with a solid bat is something the Rays have never seen before in their brief history. Escobar’s .989 fielding average ties Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta for the best average in the AL, but his lack of errors is matched in equal measure by his number of spectacular plays. But why this year for Loney and Escobar? Maybe the Rays’ laid-back atmosphere is just what Loney and Escobar needed to develop into stronger players.
While the Rays are celebrating a series sweep against the Toronto Blue Jays and Loney becoming a first-time father over the weekend, it’s hard to understate how critical both players have been to the team’s success this season. Hopefully the second half of the season will allow Loney and Escobar to demonstrate just how talented they are on the field and how critical they are the clubhouse as well.