Entering Tuesday's contest in Cleveland, Alcides Escobar was the Royals leader in slugging percentage, wOBA and RC+. On Tuesday, he collected two more singles and a walk in five plate appearances. Just another night for the Royals best player in 2014.
This is the world in which we live. A world where the middle of the order is struggling to drive the ball with any consistency (Tuesday excepting). A world where the leadoff hitter who never strikes out, is suddenly striking out. A world where the worst offensive performer of 2013 is now the go-to guy at the plate.
We know the story. Escobar finished 2012 with a 96 RC+ and a .316 wOBA. A good offensive performance from a guy who played above average defense at short. Basically, the guy was a solid performer at a position where the Royals have historically lacked what you would call solid performers. But a deeper examination into his offensive stats for 2012 would reveal a .344 BABIP. When his career mark to that point was around .285, that would certainly qualify as an outlier.
Turns out, it was. Escobar didn't so much fall back to Earth offensively in 2013, he smashed into the outer crust and burrowed all the way to the core. He was an offensive train wreck. A 49 RC+, a .247 wOBA. He was the worst offensive performer in 2013. That's not hyperbole. It's fact. Again, looking a little deeper, we saw a BABIP of .264. Quite a swing from the previous season.
In 2013, his batted ball profile underwent a subtle, but important, change. In 2012, he hit 53 percent of his batted balls on the ground. In 2013, his ground ball percentage was 46 percent. Worth noting, his line drive rate remained steady at 23 percent. Than means the difference went into his fly ball column. Which, when you're not a power hitter, is not good.
(By the way, ignore the rabble produced by the Royals broadcasts about Escobar not bunting enough for base hits and that being a correlation to his offensive struggles in 2013. Statistically, they are correct. Escobar bunted for a base hit 11 times in 2012 and just three times the next season. But those eight missing hits would have bumped his average to just .247. Plus, they all would have been singles. Yes, it would have looked better for Escobar, but they wouldn't have moved the offensive needle very much at all. Maybe enough to get him out of "worst everyday offensive performer" consideration. But that would have been just a consolation prize.)
So what's happening in the small sample size of 2014?
For starters, his batting average on balls in play is off the charts. Through the first 18 games, Escobar was sporting a .362 BABIP. And he's doing it by hitting his lowest percentage of ground balls ever. Again, his line drive rate is steady at 24 percent. His ground ball rate is down to 41 percent and his fly ball rate is up to 35 percent.
Let's take those percentages, place them in a table and see how he does by batting average for each type of batted ball.
An amazingly high number of ground balls have been finding their way through the infield. As we can see from his current hit chart, they're coming when he pulls the ball.
It's not exactly breaking news to say that Escobar's hot streak to open the season isn't sustainable. We've watched him for three seasons. We know the kind of hitter he is. But the coming correction could be a nasty one. Hopefully, when his BABIP begins it's inevitable decline, it will be softened by an increase in ground balls. Meanwhile, we can only hope that Ned Yost keeps him at the bottom of the order. Because we all know that there will come a point where Yost can't help himself and he'll hit Escobar second.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Escobar's defensive play has been stellar as well. We're only three weeks into the season and the highlight reel is already full. Last year, I felt he lost a step. To me, it just looked like his range wasn't there. That's not the case thus far.
He's making great stops on ground balls, going to his right:
Picking the short hops:
Then, there are the plays on the pop-ups:
This one may be my favorite Escobar catch ever. I mean this was amazing:
And let's not forget the relays:
Through three weeks in the season, Escobar has been the Royals MVP. Let's hang on as long as we can.