Attempting to Understand Yunel Escobar's Play for the Ages


Baseball has known for years that Yunel Escobar has as much raw talent defensively as any shortstop in baseball. But the issue was always the mental aspect of the game. He would lose focus, flashing great defense at times but too often failing to make routine plays. But now, the lapses have become rarer and rarer until the point where they’re almost entirely gone. With a .989 fielding percentage, tied for the best in the American League, and an 8.3 UZR (15.4 UZR/150), Escobar has cemented himself as one of the best defensive shortstop in baseball. But no one had ever seen anything like this.

(You can see the play in GIF form from our friends at DRaysBay here.)

Escobar’s back-handed flip was so amazing that even the rival Boston crowd was left mystified by what they had seen. How did it happen? Escobar for his part described it as a reaction play and that he didn’t really have any other option. Let’s try to break down exactly how the play happened using screenshots from the MLB.com video.

1) Positioning

Escobar only has a chance to make the play because the Rays are in double play depth and he’s positioned closer to the second base bag than usual and also farther back on the infield. However, with a right-handed batter in Dustin Pedroia at the plate, Escobar wasn’t planning to cover and had to range far to his left to make the play.

2) Lateral Movement and Momentum

When Escobar fielded the ball, he had been running hard to his left and had his momentum going past the second base bag and towards right-center. There was no chance he was going to be able to throw from that position and was going to have to make a move, whether it be a spin or a flip, to record an out. If Escobar spins, as he has a few times this season, it would have been tough for him to get much on the throw, not too much of an issue if he was throwing to second base, but the issue is that Ben Zobrist is not yet on the bag when Escobar gloves the ball. Escobar would be making an awkward off-balance throw, tough enough to begin with, and he would just have to hope that Zobrist gets to the bag in time. It could have worked, but there were so many opportunities for disaster. With a flip, Escobar is looking at Zobrist the entire time, and the softer throw gives Zobrist a little more time to get to the bag and the opportunity to barehand the ball because the throw isn’t as hard. It made a lot of sense as long as Escobar executed the flip correctly.

3) The Flip

A front flip was never going to work because the angle was all messed up and glove-flipping across your body isn’t the best idea. Instead, Escobar waited until he was just about parallel to the bag before releasing a straight flip behind his back as opposed to having to angle his wrist in any crazy way. He saw Zobrist (upper right-hand corner of the screenshot) and saw that Zobrist would be there in time to make the catch. He released the ball exactly where he did because he had just stepped with his right foot (the screenshot is of the step after that) and had enough of a lower body base that the flick of his wrist for the flip would have something on it. The flip did end up with a bit of an angle on it because Escobar was moving diagonally as he threw (that’s just physics).

4) The Barehanded Catch

 

It was a double play, so we have to give Zobrist some credit too. The moment in the screenshot is key because Zobrist has a chance to catch the flip with either his glove or his barehand. If Zobrist did catch it with his glove, though, it would take longer to make the transfer and he wouldn’t get the hustling Pedroia. So instead, knowing that the flip wasn’t thrown very hard, Zobrist caught it with his bare hand and made a quick throw to James Loney at first base for the out. Zobrist had a little bit of an issue gripping the ball after he caught it with his bare hand, but it was the decision to barehand it that turned Escobar’s play from a nice force out to a double play for the ages.

Like Escobar said, it definitely was a reaction play, for both Escobar and Zobrist. The flip happened not out of flashiness but because Escobar determined it was the best option (although the fact that he did that in a split-second is downright incredible), and Zobrist fielding it with his barehand was exact the same thing. A lot of things had to go right for the play to happen, but Escobar trusted his ability to make the flip and trusted Zobrist to be on the bag, and the result was something special. This was one of the best plays anyone had seen in a while–but you never know what Escobar will pull out of his hat (or glove) next.

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Tags: Ben Zobrist Tampa Bay Rays Yunel Escobar

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