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Alcides Escobar's Hitting - Improvement or Luck?

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When the Royals traded for Alcides Escobar, they figured they were going to get an all-glove shortstop and they hoped he would develop into a slightly below-average or average hitter. Last season, the Royals got what they expected. Escobar hit 27% below league average, but had a UZR of +10.2. The statistics, however, have done a full 180 this season; Escobar is the second best hitting shortstop in the league behind the Nationals Ian Desmond, but has the third worst UZR among shortstops, only ahead of Derek Jeter and Starlin Castro. It seems unlikely that Alcides Escobar has morphed into a completely different player. In the future, Alcides Escobar will not be the second best hitting shortstop in baseball, but will also not be (and likely has not been) the third worst fielding shorstop.

This piece will only look at Escobar's hitting; fitting in a discussion of defensive statistics into this article would be too overwhelming. Later posts will discuss his defense, and hopefully what value Royals fans can expect from him down the road.

Kings of Kauffman writer Kevin Scobee addressed Escobar's hitting in an article posted at the end of May. Comparing this season to last season, Scobee came to the conclusion:

(Alcides) may not be worse, but there’s not really any telling evidence that he is better either.

Escobar has continued to hit in the six weeks since Scobee wrote his article. Thankfully, he covered his bases by writing:

None of this is to say though that Escobar can’t keep up this string of luck and ride out another couple months hitting at this level.

To see if anything has changed since Kevin wrote his article, I will analyze the same statistics Scobee analyzed as well as some more in an attempt to see how much improvement is legitimate and how much is luck. I will also show how we can use these statistics to predict how Alcides will hit in the future.

In his article, Scobee looked at Escobar's K%, BB%, .ISO and BABIP to show that most of Alcides's offensive improvement was driven by an unsustainable BABIP, and that Escobar's higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate were cause for concern. Alcides's peripheral hitting stats for last season and this season so far are given below:

2011: 4.2 BB%, 12.2 K%, .081 ISO, .285 BABIP

2012: 4.4 BB%, 16.9K%, .125 ISO, .373 BABIP

Currently, Alcides is drawing walks at essentially the same rate he did last season, and is striking out a little more. He is also hitting for a little more power this season, which would be expected from a hitter that is improving. It will be difficult to tell how much of the power increase is due to improvement and not random variation, as it takes an entire season's worth of at-bats for Isolated Power to normalize.

That leaves the most glaring and obvious difference, an 88 point jump in Batting Average of Balls In Play. A BABIP of .373 is probably unsustainable for any batter, especially one that has the track record that Escobar has. If Escobar has improved as a hitter, one can expect his BABIP to improve as well, for hitters have some control over their BABIP.

People have pointed to Escobar increase in line drive percentage as proof that Escobar is actually hitting the ball better. Although nice in theory, LD% is the worst correlating hitting statistic from year-to-year; it correlates less well than BABIP. Part of this is due to the difficulty of calling something a line drive compared to calling it a flyball or a groundball. It is subject to the scorer's opinion, which causes a lot of random variation from season to season. Although there is evidence that Alcides has made improvements at the plate, LD% is not the strongest indicator of such improvements.

We can see that Alcides has improved his approach at the plate by cutting down the amount of pitches he swings outside of the strike zone, and punishing fastballs when he gets the opportunity. Escobar has lowered his Outside of the Strike Zone (O-Swing) Percentage from 32.2% to 29%, which is around league average. Perhaps as a consequence (or perhaps because of random variation) 53% of the pitches Escobar has seen this season were located in the strike zone, which is a career high.

As much as I hate the term "fastball hitter," for the first time in a full season, Escobar is hitting fastballs well. Last season, Alcides earned -10.5 runs below average against four seam fastballs, and earned -12.7 runs below average the season before. This season, Escobar has earned 7.3 runs above average against four seam fastballs. Although this statistic is a descriptive statistic and not a predictive statistic, it is still a positive sign that Escobar has hit fastballs much better this season, and it matches up nicely from what I have noticed watching. If Escobar and Seitzer made an adjustment this offseason to speed up his bat or shorten his swing, it appears to be working so far and they both deserve credit for the adjustment.

The cliff notes version of the past six paragraphs is that Escobar is probably hitting above his true talent level, but their are signs that suggest that some improvement is legitimate. How much is legitimate, however, is what is most important. Thankfully, Bradley Woodrum of Fangraphs published an article last year with a "Should-Hit" calculator. Should-Hit is essentially FIP in reverse, in which it calculates the hitters wRC+ based on his BB%, KK%, HR, PA and BABIP. Although the calculator has bias towards hitters with home run power compared to doubles power, home runs serve as a good enough proxy for power that the calculations are reliable.

Using Woodrum's calculator, I plugged in Alcides ZiPS BB% and KK% to account for future regression, but used his current number of home runs and plate appearances. I then increased is BABIP, starting at .290 by increments of .010 until I reached .360, which produced the following table (wRC+ is a hitting statistic where 100 is league average, and 101 is 1% above league average, 80 is 20% below league average, and so on).

Does Hit Should Hit BB% K% HR PA Present BABIP Expected BABIP
114 76 4.60% 13.90% 4. 338 0.373 0.290
114 80 4.60% 13.90% 4. 338 0.373 0.300
114 85 4.60% 13.90% 4. 338 0.373 0.310
114 89 4.60% 13.90% 4. 338 0.373 0.320
114 94 4.60% 13.90% 4. 338 0.373 0.330
114 99 4.60% 13.90% 4. 338 0.373 0.340
114 103 4.60% 13.90% 4. 338 0.373 0.350
114 108 4.60% 13.90% 4. 338 0.373 0.360

The calculator believes that Escobar current wRC+ is 114, but it is actually 121. As noted above, the formula will underestimate hitters who have more doubles power instead of home run power. Alcides playing half of his games in Kauffman Stadium only exaggerate this problem, leading to the 7% difference. Still, the calculator is a useful tool when projecting Escobar's future. If Alcides can maintain a .310 BABIP, we could expect Escobar to be around 10% below league average as a hitter, which would have placed him amongst the top third of qualified shortstops last season. Pairing this type of hitting with above-average defense at a difficult position would provide the Royals real value moving forward.

In conclusion, Alcides Escobar will probably not hit this well for the rest of his career, but there are positive signs that indicate Escobar has made adjustments at the plate, and some of the increased run production is sustainable.