Think of the best steak you’ve ever had in your life. If you’re a vegetarian, think of the most scrumptious salad you’ve ever eaten. In either case, you probably ate that item at its peak, when it was ready to be served and not too late or too early. In either case, coming back to your freshly-served meal one day later to eat it would be disastrous. After a day of sitting on a room temperature plate, the steak would be cold and tough, the salad wilting and discolored. Even the best of the best crosses a threshold where it is no longer the best, and another threshold where it is no longer viable at all.
Do this same exercise with a different meal, even a bad one, and the same thing happens. No meal, except perhaps the ‘chicken patty’ that your high school cafeteria somehow served without any guilt whatsoever, lasts forever.
Baseball players are the same way. Bring them up too early, and they are unprepared (Raul Mondesi). Keep them too long, and they break down no matter how good they are (Jason Kendal).
Alcides Escobar is in his seventh season with the Royals. He’s had some of the most memorable hits, fielded some of the most memorable web gems, and been a part of a few of the most memorable seasons in Kansas City history. But everything must end, and it would behoove the Royals to part ways with Escobar this season—the sooner, the better.
Escobar is usually not the source of discussion, and that’s probably because he’s just like the boring wallpaper at your parents’ house. You forget that it’s even in that bathroom, and the only thing that you can think of is its color, which is blueish...green? Red? Wait, what color is it, anyway?
Since coming over to Kansas City with Lorenzo Cain in the trade that sent Zack Greinke and his Chipotle-fueled World of Warcraft sessions packing to Milwaukee, Escobar has been a staple of the Royals defense and lineup. Since his first year in white and blue in 2011, Escobar has played in 963 regular season games (Only two other players in all of baseball have more games played in that time period—Robinson Cano and Adrian Gonzalez—and first-place Cano has played in only 12 games more than Escobar). Escobar has had a fair amount of postseason success, too, becoming the 2015 ALCS MVP and hitting this hilarious home run in the 2015 World Series:
Now, if 963 regular season games played sounds like a lot, that’s because it is: Escobar has played in 97% of all possible Royals games in his Kansas City tenure, regular season and postseason. Hosmer, a staple of Royals lineups and defenses for just as long, is next, at 88% of games played. To put it inversely: Hosmer has not appeared in 87 games since his ascension to the First Base Throne. Escobar hasn’t played in 30 games since his shortstop debut in 2011. Thirty. Half the months in the year have more days than Escobar has had days off in six plus years.
If healthy and still employed by Kansas City, Escobar will pass up Joe Randa to nab the tenth overall spot in games played in Royals franchise history. He’s already played in more games than David DeJesus, or Carlos Beltran, or Johnny Damon, or John Mayberry, or Kevin Seitzer.
In addition to his regular good health, Escobar has also exhibited extreme offensive consistency in his career. Every year from 2011 to 2016, Escobar walked between 3% and 4.2% of the time, struck out between 11.3% and 15.4% of the time, and had an isolated slugging percentage of between .064 and .098. Everyone knew what Escobar could provide: he was a contact hitter who didn’t walk, strike out, or have much power, but could nonetheless run the bases well and swipe 20-something stolen bases a year with a very good success rate.
Defensive metrics liked him but didn’t love him; between Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Escobar produced a defensive performance good for 8.8 runs above average. After years of watching guys like the walking disaster of Yuniesky Betancourt play shortstop like an iceberg hugs an ocean liner, seeing Escobar every night was comforting on a fundamental level.
But there’s a problem with Escobar. From 2011-2014, Escobar was very good. Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference use slightly different calculations for their versions of Wins Above Replacement, but the average of both over those four years placed Escobar as a slightly above-average player, at about 2.2 WAR per season. Since then, Escobar has only averaged about 0.7 WAR per year, World Series ambushing be damned.
This year is Escobar’s age-30 season. The ‘2’ turning into a ‘3’ doesn’t inevitably spell death for all players, but things change quickly as players age and the ‘3’ is a good indicator that the best years are behind you. For the last few years, Escobar isn’t doing what made his offense relatively viable. He’s walking at about career average, but he’s seen his strikeout rate spike dangerously, from a career rate of 13.4% to this season’s rate of 20.4%. He’s also putting up a career low in isolated slugging percentage at .057, which is what you’d expect for your average pitcher, not a shortstop.
Among all shortstops with at least 1000 plate appearances since 2015, Escobar is dead last in total offensive production by wRC+ and OPS, which is what tends to happen when you have the worst walk rate and the least amount of power. Escobar ranks fourth-worst in fWAR and third-worst in bWAR over that time. And while his salary is relatively inexpensive in baseball terms, Escobar will have made $14 million since 2015 by the end of this season. A player at league minimum could have easily offered similar value for $12.5 million less.
The strongest Escobar supporters are generally ones that argue that Escobar is there because of his defense, and defense is just as valuable. Lee Judge’s hilariously titled ‘Why runs scored matters less than you think’ explains that argument pretty well:
But the Royals do not have to be awesome at scoring runs if they’re awesome at preventing them...
...As I might have mentioned a couple hundred times before, fans tend to get overly whacked out about offense and ignore defense.
That’s because hits and runs are easy to count, but a first baseman scooping a throw in the dirt doesn’t move the needle. If Lorenzo Cain or Alcides Escobar or Mike Moustakas make a great play — robbing the other team of hits and preventing runs — it doesn’t show up in the box score the next day.
Fans often focus on offense, but big-league ballplayers pay attention to both sides of the ball...
...Runs scored matters, but so do runs allowed.
This is actually a great point: runs scored and runs allowed are important. In order to win, you can focus on preventing more runs than your opponent or focus on scoring more runs than your opponent.
But ultimately this point of view is its own worse enemy when attempting to argue for the inclusion of a specific player on defensive grounds. Since both runs scored and runs allowed are important, one can improve the team by regressing in one area if they improve in the other by a greater amount.
The Royals have performed this simple calculus on Escobar every year: his good defense has been valuable enough that it makes up for his poor offense. Importantly, this was the same reason Mondesi was on the roster for so long. But even the Royals sent Mondesi to the minor leagues when it was clear his offense wasn’t improving and his net contribution was negative.
Kansas City needs to realize that Escobar is no longer a baseball player worth starting at the Major League level. Importantly, the Royals have internal options with more upside: Christian Colon, who was drafted as a shortstop and has looked decent in limited playing time there; Corey Toups, a guy six years younger than Escobar who is hitting pretty well in AAA Omaha; and even Mondesi, whose natural position is shortstop and will likely be Major League ready later this year.
Escobar isn’t the biggest problem on this team. But the Royals’ dogged determination to play one of their worst players every inning of every game is hurting the club. It would be in their best interest to move on from Escobar and plug in someone else for the future’s sake and for now.
It won’t happen; the Royals had the perfect opportunity to move on from Escobar in the offseason without cost, but picked up his option anyway. It’s still the right move.