Dayton Moore exercised the second option year on Alcides Escobar’s contract extension from 2012 for $6.5M to secure his services at shortstop for the 2017 season as opposed to a $500,000 buyout. While that amount of cash appears a pittance in terms of today’s approximate dollar value of WAR, there still remains legitimate debate on whether Alcides Escobar will be worth that dollar figure this upcoming season. The answer will likely be unclear until well into season, yet the the production he would need to justify his contract can be estimated. In the simplest of terms, as a result of his horrendous offense and recent defensive regression, the key to Alcides Escobar being not terrible next year resides in his base-running.
Despite being one of the worst every day hitters at the plate in baseball, Escobar posted an fWAR above 1 every season as a Royal until 2016 when he had 0.4 fWAR. While it is acknowledged that his value is highly dependent on his defensive prowess, a deeper look at data reveals that his base-running is likely to have the greatest impact on his value moving forward as his defense has become closer to league average.
Prior to conducting analysis, it is important to understand how batting, base-running and fielding contribute to the overall fWAR calculation. Below is a table based on Fangraphs data that has the pertinent information for Alcides Escobar from 2010-2016. Fangraphs calculates WAR by adding total offensive runs to total fielding runs and adding an adjustment for both league and replacement level (columns highlighted in blue), which yields Runs Above Replacement (RAR). RAR is then divided by the current year’s runs per win to produce fWAR (columns highlighted in red). Total offense runs is a sum of batting runs and Base Running Runs Above Average (BsR) and total fielding runs is a sum of UZR and a positional adjustment (highlighted in green).
The formula for Batting Runs is based on wOBA, which is why you see it added to the table. Although Batting Runs is also dependent on current year constants, future values can be approximated based on a wOBA projection.
Alcides was quite valuable in 2011, 2012 and 2014, producing an fWAR of 1.9, 2.1 and 3.2 respectively. While Escobar had a nearly identical fWAR in 2012 as he did in 2011, he did so in completely different fashion.
His 2011 fWAR of 1.9 was comprised of a .280 wOBA, his second best defensive season according to UZR (9.6), and his second to worst BsR season of 2.5. Most of his value this year was derived from defense and base-running, with the majority coming from defense. His offense was not necessarily cromulent, but it was enough to not torpedo his fWAR as much as other, more odious seasons as he earned -20.9 runs for his performance with the bat. It is important to note that his wOBA was third highest of his seven seasons of full time plate appearances.
The diminutive Dominican produced a career best wOBA of .316 in 2012, which combined with his second highest career BsR of 7.0 yielded the only season of his career in which his offensive runs produced was on the positive side of the fWAR ledger. However, defense in his second campaign with the Royals was despised by UZR when he posted a career worst -13.5, which also is the only year of his career below zero with the exception of 300 innings with the 2009 Brewers. His value in 2012 was was driven by his ability to hit slightly above average for a shortstop along with one of the strongest base-running seasons of his career. If his UZR were anywhere close to 0 that year, he would have been worth more than 3 fWAR. In his most anomalous season to date, Escobar was entirely dependent on offense for his value of 2.1 fWAR.
Scovius the Blue illustrated in 2014 just how valuable (according to fWAR) he can be when he compiled 3.2 fWAR by being close to league average offensively and slightly above average defensively. A .307 wOBA combined with a 1.6 UZR and 4.8 BsR fueled the best season of his career by fWAR. His averagish offense combined with an above average BsR yielded his total offensive runs at virtually zero (-0.1), while his UZR a shade above the mean provided 9.0 defensive runs after allowing for the positional adjustment. It is likely that his production in his career year was worth somewhere between $20M and $30M and a significant chunk of that came at the plate.
Alcides Escobar will theoretically be 'worth' his $6.5M contract this year if he could put together a 1 WAR season. There does exist a possibility that the BABIP fairy will sprinkle Esky with the same magical dust from 2012 (.344) and 2014 (.326) and he produces a wOBA somewhere near .300 or higher, but it is much more likely that it will be in the .270 to .280 range. Similarly, he could somehow post a double-digit UZR as he has previously, yet has an exceedingly higher probability of landing in the 0-5 range.
Royals Review's own Hokius did a masterful job in highlighting the role of base-running (or lack thereof) in Escobar's 2016 campaign. Specifically, the confluence of an awful year offensively with an average year defensively meant that he would need to rely on above average base-running to produce value. As written in his article, Hokius astutely points out that for the first time in his career, Alcides failed to earn a positive value in BsR (-0.8) and had only had one other season in which he was under four (2.5 in 2011). All of these factors combined yielded a career low of 0.4 fWAR in 2016.
In order for a 1 fWAR season to occur for our iron-man shortstop, he needs to be sitting at an approximate sum of -13 runs total across his measured offensive and defensive contribution prior to adding in the league and replacement level adjustment. Here is where the importance of his BsR can be seen; he has been worth less than -20 batting runs in five of his seven seasons and his last two seasons have both been between -26 and -27. His UZR has been under 2 in two of the last three seasons and he has posted a negative Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in three consecutive years. It is very reasonable to project that he will register between -25 and -30 runs with the bat (a wOBA of approximately .261 to .271) and around +7 to +10 runs with his glove (UZR between 0 and 3 plus positional adjustment). This leaves him with needing between 2 and 10 BsR in order to hit the 1 fWAR benchmark and highlights the potential importance of base-running to his 2017 value (highlighted in blue box below).
The table below shows the approximate BsR Alcides Escobar would need next year to accumulate 1 fWAR based on a wOBA range of .261-.281 (-30 batting runs to -20 batting runs) and UZR range of 0-10.
If Escobar's wOBA is .280 or higher (projections have him at .281 FWIW), then he will almost assuredly reach 1 fWAR as long as his defense and base-running don’t provide negative value. If Escobar is favored by UZR in 2017 (note this doesn't necessarily constitute a better season defensively) and manages closer to the 5-10 range, then he can afford to have a wOBA that is closer to .260 and still eek out 1 fWAR without a huge BsR. If he somehow manages a wOBA of .280 and UZR of 5 or more, a BsR of 5 could potentially push his value to 2 fWAR for the season.
A likely scenario will have the former Brewer around 0.5 fWAR before adding in BsR. This means that in order to reach the 1 fWAR threshold, he will need to get back to earning at least 4-5 offensive runs through his BsR. Otherwise, he will be dependent on either having a wOBA closer to .280 or an UZR closer to 5. Analysis of his most recent seasons and career would indicate either of these outcomes are not the most likely for the upcoming year. As a result, the skills displayed running around the askew baseball square will likely weigh most prominently on his quest to be not terrible.
**Note - for 2017 fWAR calculations, the following constants were projected: 650 plate appearances, SS positional adjustment of 7.3, league adjustment of 2.6, replacement level adjustment of 20.0, league wOBA of .315, wOBA scale of 1.25, league runs per plate appearance of .116, park factor of 103 and a wRC per plate appearance (AL non-pitchers only) of .119.