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Alcides Escobar needs to pull the ball more

The iron man shortstop, El Mago, is having another down season offensively. There's a way to fix that - pull the ball more when it makes sense.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Alcides Escobar is one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. This is not an article about his defense.

Last year, Escobar hit .285/.317/.377 for a 95 wRC+, just below major league average. When comparing Escobar against all the players who played shortstop last year, he looks pretty good. Those who had plate appearances while playing shortstop in 2014 batted .255/.310/.368 for a 90 wRC+. Escobar's offense last year was better than the league average shortstop.

It's a different story this year. Leading off for the majority of the season, Escobar has hit .267/.305/.332 for a 76 wRC+. The major league line for all players who have had plate appearances while playing shortstop hasn't changed much, which means Escobar is below major league average again.

Basically, Escobar's BABIP very closely tracks with his wRC+. When his BABIP is up, his overall offensive contributions go up. When his BABIP goes down, his wRC+ goes down. Because Escobar is dependent on contact for his offensive production (he neither walks nor strikes out much), he needs to produce on the balls he puts in play. He's not doing a great job of that. He can do better.

If possible, I don't like to accept luck as the explanation for things. Obviously, luck can explain a fair amount, but it's nice when something reveals itself. A quick look at Escobar's batted ball data revealed that his production by batted ball type closely tracks with his pull rate by each type. Observe the following three charts (2008 and 2009 were eliminated due to partial seasons).

I use wOBA (weighted on-base average) as the measure of production by batted ball type (data from FanGraphs). I don't use wOBA much, but it's a good offensive stat. For those who do not know, wOBA is a slugging-percentage-like calculation that weights the different offensive outcomes according to how much they're actually worth. The calculation is then scaled such that the league average wOBA equals the league average on-base percentage.

escobar fly balls

The gray line is the pull rate. There is some variance in the trend for fly ball production, but overall when one goes up or down, so does the other.

escobar line drives

Like fly balls, there is some variance in the trend for line drives. However, generally as one goes up or down, so does the other.

escobar grounders

For ground balls, it would appear that the pull rate / wOBA correlation is the strongest. Interestingly, Escobar has actually had more production on ground balls than fly balls for 2013-2015. I'll say that a slightly different way. The average ground ball from Escobar is worth more than the average fly ball from Escobar. He is that poor at hitting fly balls.

My suggestion is for Escobar to pull the ball more. I don't think it is a coincidence that Escobar's best ground ball production, last year, came when he pulled grounders the most. I'm not worried too much about his liner or fly ball production; nearly half of all balls in play for Escobar are ground balls. Due to Escobar's speed, he should really be focusing on pulling the ball not only for the extra power, but also for the extra chance for infield hits.

It seems so easyJust pull the ball moreJust do itDo it. Hold on there, Professor Diagnosis Stat Pants (i.e., me). In order for it to be worthwhile to pull a pitch, the pitch should be in a place worth pulling the ball. To investigate this, I downloaded from Baseball Savant every single pitch Escobar has faced from 2010 onward during the regular season and used Savant's zone designations to assign pitches to "inside", "middle", "outside", or "ball". Over his career, Escobar has received only 12.8 percent of pitches on the inner third of the plate. It is hard to pull the ball when you don't receive many pitches worth pulling.

That's not the whole story either. Escobar receives only about 14.9 percent of pitches over the middle third of the plate and 14.8 percent of pitches over the outer third of the plate. Escobar receives a whopping 57.5 percent of pitches outside the Baseball Savant strike zone. Escobar doesn't get a ton of great pitches at which to swing in general.

The other element affecting Escobar's pull rate is the rate at which he swings at pitches within each region. To pull the ball more, he should swing at more inside pitches, right? Not necessarily. In 2015, Escobar is swinging at 74.4 percent of the pitches on the inner third of the plate, which is the highest of his career. If you'll notice from the three graphs above, Escobar's pull rate is much lower than 2014 in each batted ball type.

Last year, when Escobar's pull rate was high for each batted ball type, he actually swung the most at pitches over the middle third of the plate. He swung at pitches on the inner third and outer third about equally. This year, he swings the most at inside pitches, a little less at middle pitches, and a little less than that at the outer third pitches.

Finally, there's the matter of what type of batted ball Escobar produces in each region of the zone. Given his poor ability to produce on fly balls, he should be doing everything he can to limit them. 2012 and 2014, Escobar's best seasons offensively, are the seasons with the lowest fly ball rate (by Baseball Savant / PITCHf/x classifications). In 2012, Escobar just hit a ton of ground balls. In 2014, he hit fewer ground balls but more line drives.

I looked at high, middle, and low thirds and didn't find anything of consequence.

So, in order to produce better, Escobar needs to do a few things:

1) Swing more at pitches most likely to produce ground balls and line drives (middle and outside pitches)

2) When he does swing at inside and middle pitches, pull the ball

3) Don't elevate the ball when possible

This year, Escobar is swinging too much at inside pitches, and he's producing too few ground balls when he makes contact inside. He's also not producing enough ground balls over the middle third, though his batted ball distribution on the middle third of the plate is not terribly different from last year.

If they're going to keep hitting Escobar leadoff, they need to make sure he is doing everything he can to produce contact most likely to get him on base.