A few years ago (2013), Alcides Escobar had a miserable offensive season. This can't be disputed. Batting .234/.259/.300 for a 49 wRC+, Escobar had quite literally the worst offensive season of any regular player (by wRC+). Shortstops as a group hit .254/.308/.367 for an 86 wRC+ that year, so Escobar was bad even compared to his peers.
Escobar rebounded in 2014 with a .285/.317/.377 line for a 94 wRC+. This is pretty good for a shortstop! With his defense and base running, he was solidly above average. Unfortunately, he's reverted back to 2013 form. After a decent first half, Escobar has cratered into, once again, the worst offensive regular player in the majors.
With a .219/.259/.260 line since the All-Star Break, Escobar's 41 wRC+ is literally last in the majors among the "qualified" players, "qualified" meaning eligible for the batting title. Of course, there are players who have technically performed worse than Escobar during the second half. Lowering the threshold to 100 plate appearances, Hanley Ramirez appears last on the list. Ramirez is making a ton of money; Escobar is not. At least there's that, but every single player around or below Escobar has less playing time. Escobar has been bad AND on the field the most.
Of course, splitting things by half or month or a number of other splits is arbitrary. One must choose one of those arbitrary splits to see positive performance from Escobar - the last 14 days. Escobar has hit .306/.359/.389 for a 108 wRC+. During this same time period, Christian Colon has a 226 wRC+ and is batting .500. It's hard to put much stock into 14 days' worth of stats.
You'll notice I brought up Colon, who was mentioned in the blurb near the start of the article. Colon has been deployed at second base, shortstop, and third base this year, but I don't think I'm mistaken in saying his defense is not highly valued by the club. Versatility is nice, but shortstop is supposedly the hardest position to play on the diamond.
The crux of the debate (which I'm totally making up and probably isn't real) is this: Does Colon's potentially superior offense make up for his deficient defense?
It's hard to have this debate not because Escobar is a rather beloved player (though that's part of it), but because one of the assumptions of the debate is that Colon's offense is better. Colon's had all of 162 plate appearances in his career. Now, during that time he's done well (.306/.363/.388 for a 111 wRC+ with nice walk and strikeout rates), but that's hardly enough time to make declarative statements like "Colon's offense is superior to Escobar's".
Having said that, Colon's offense can't be worse, right? I said earlier that Escobar's had the worst second half among regular players this year, and he's not far removed from an entire season of the worst offense in the game. I'm not squeamish saying Colon's offense is better.
Regarding defense, Colon's career 95.7 percent rate of making the "routine" (as rated by Inside Edge) plays at shortstop doesn't inspire confidence. Then again, Escobar's career 97 percent rate also leaves a little to be desired. Shortstops as a group succeed on 97.9 percent of the routine plays. DRS and UZR see Colon as above average at shortstop, but I wouldn't pay attention to those numbers. Overall, there really isn't much data to make firm conclusions regarding Colon's defense aside from the scouting reports/reputation, which say that Colon is a worse defender.
Maybe a better question is this: Is Colon's defense ~30 percent worse than Escobar's defense? That's kind of a rough measure, but Colon's offense is somewhere around 30 percent better than Escobar's (so far). This seems like as reasonable a breaking point as any. I don't think Colon is THAT much worse a defender.
Other thoughts to take into consideration: The pitchers. The Royals' group of pitchers is generally a pitch to contact bunch, so theoretically there are more defensive opportunities. However, many pitchers lean more fly ball than ground ball, and shortstops don't catch fly balls in the outfield often.
Another thought is Escobar's streakiness - his offense runs pretty well in parallel with his BABIP due to his extreme contact ways. Escobar's high BABIP in the last 14 days is why his performance has been better.
Given that information, siding with Escobar is a bet on streakiness and defense. Siding with Colon is a bet on offense and fly ball pitchers in a pitcher's park. This situation, undoubtedly, does not exist. Ned Yost will not be the guy who loses a game on a grounder through the hole on the left side of the infield. The Royals value Escobar's defense very highly.
Despite my feeling that Colon's offense outweighs his defense, I'm still inclined to start Escobar. There is much uncertainty regarding Colon's offense. The way the Royals do things has gotten them this far (though it is despite Escobar's offense, not because of it). It's getting harder to question them.