There are, essentially, only three ways of evaluating a position player in baseball.
The first way is offensively. There are a bevy of offensive stats, old and new, that explain a player’s impact on the team’s run scoring ability. This is the easiest thing to measure by a significant margin.
The second way is defensively. Unlike batting stats, it’s a little more difficult to evaluate defensive contributions, what with defensive shifts and the lack of easy counting stats other than the almost-useless fielding percentage and the specificity of the outfield assist. Still, ways of defensive evaluation exist, whether through stats or scouting.
The third way is excitingly and enigmatically referred to as ‘intangibles.’ Leadership, ‘clutch’ hitting, off-the-field merits, personality, and similar factors fit here. They’re intangible because they are inherently untrackable or so esoteric that any attempted metric to track them would be little more than jumbled word salad put together by an overeager intern.
I’m at the risk of burying the lede here, so let’s cut to the chase now: none of these three methods of player evaluation come remotely close to explaining the Kansas City Royals’ love affair with Alcides Escobar, Everyday Shortstop for the Rest of Time. There’s just no way around it: Escobar is a terrible player and has been for three years.
I mean, hell, pick a stat. Batting average? Boring, but alright. There are 185 players with at least 1000 plate apperances since 2015. Escobar’s .248 mark ranks 153rd. You want on base percentage? Uh, not good, with Escobar placing 183rd. Somehow, he’s even worse at isolated power—he’s nice and cozy sitting at 184th place—and that combination places him dead last in on base plus slugging (OPS).
You want defense? If you’re going by traditional metrics, then errors is as good a bet as any. There are 272 players with 1000+ innings played in the field since 2015. Escobar’s 32 errors are the 16th-highest amount.
If you want some more advanced metrics, let’s stick with Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). By DRS (same qualifications as above), Escobar isn’t in the top 50, or 100, or even 150 of the best defensive players—rather, Escobar ranks 179th. By UZR, Escobar cracks the top 50 at 43rd place...but if you look at UZR/150, which prorates UZR for everybody out to 150 games, Escobar falls out of the top 50 and all the way to 71st place.
As one might expect, intangibles is the most difficult thing to deal with. Escobar isn’t known as a clubhouse leader and doesn’t interact as much with the Kansas City media or do all that much with the community, but a difficult language and cultural barrier is enough to give him the benefit of the doubt there. There is, of course, ‘Esky Magic,’ but believing in Esky Magic is a superb exercise in aggressive intellectual ignorance. The Royals have been on a total tear since Danny Duffy went down with an oblique injury, but no one is talking about ‘Anti-Duffy Magic’ because it is flatly ridiculous to say that the Royals are a better team without their ace and everyone knows it.
On some level, people tend to know that Escobar isn’t a fantastic player, and many are aware of his offensive drawbacks. They’ll take his poor plate appearances if he’ll do stuff like this, one of the great moments in Royals history:
That’s actually what’s dangerous about Escobar. He’s had a long, illustrious Royals career and has a veritable collection of fantastic moments as a Royal. We all have jumped for joy at something ridiculous Escobar has done. But...this year especially is not just an “Aw shucks, silly Escobar is just doing his usual shenanigans, lol.” Actually, Escobar is having an unbelievable historical anomaly of a season, way more than you probably think, and not the good kind:
If you’re not familiar with wRC+, that’s ok, but you might want to look into it as it’s a really nice stat. The big reason why is because it compares total offensive production to a player’s peers within a given season—offense as a whole can ebb and flow over the years, and so raw numbers can mean different things in different eras. A league average wRC+ is 100, and each point above or below 100 is a percentage point above or below league average.
Last year, Mike Trout’s impressive .315/.441/.550 line led to a wRC+ of 171, and he won the MVP award. The great players in the game usually run a wRC+ of 150 or so (Miguel Cabrera has a career 152 wRC+), excellent players somewhere between 130-150 (think Alex Gordon’s 2011 season), and very good ones between 110-130 (that’s where Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are this season). Average offensive players usually hover between 90 and 110.
A player with a wRC+ of 80 needs to play good defense to be productive. Think Lorenzo Cain from 2011 to 2013, or Jarrod Dyson.
A player with a wRC+ of 70 needs to play very good defense to be productive—BIlly Hamilton, for instance.
But below a 60 wRC+, there’s not really a level of sustainable defense that will make up for just how bad that player is at the plate. Of the five worst players by Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, four of them have a wRC+ under 60. Also for reference: since 2015, a period spanning more than 380 games and 1600 plate appearances, Escobar’s wRC+ is 58.
Tony Pena Jr., former Royal famous for his horrible offense and one-handed swings, had a career wRC+ of 36. Disaster movies have been filmed about less-scarring events.
Escobar’s 2017 wRC+ is 21. Twenty-one! It’s 79% worse than league average! Escobar has basically been 2016 Trout in terms of offensive production relative to league average, but in the opposite direction. In fact, Escobar is on track for the worst offensive season by a qualified batter in the history of recorded baseball and, no, I am not making this up. The only batters worse, according to Fangraphs, were a handful of 19th-century players, none of whom had more than 60 plate appearances. Considering stat collection back then, when it was closer to the Civil War than to when functioning airplanes existed, I think we should take a mountainfull of salt with those numbers.
What’s insane about this is that General Manager Dayton Moore and Manager Ned Yost seem completely, hilariously oblivious to how terrible Escobar has been. Just...why? Why is this happening?
Since I wrote that the Royals should part ways with Escobar a month and a half ago, noting that Escobar has played in 97% of all Royals games since 2011, he has hit .201/.216/.261. He has walked three times—three—in those 193 plate appearances, and has struck out 40 times. That’s a 1.5% walk rate against a 20.7% strikeout rate. Escobar started every single one of those 45 games.
Escobar is a free agent at the end of the year. Like I said earlier, he has given the Royals many great moments and a few great years, and has been paid reasonably for his services. Still, Kansas City doesn’t owe him the world. Even if they feel like Escobar is too valuable to cut from the team, they could at the very least not play him every single inning of every damn day. Or, they could give him a functional demotion and relegate him to the utility infielder and pinch-running role.
But there are no signs that the Royals have any intention of doing anything with Escobar. Last offseason, they held a team option on Escobar—in other words, they could have let him walk then. And this year, there have been persistent rumors that the Royals are interested in bringing Escobar back next year after he hits free agency.
Kansas City is actually in a perfect place right now to make a change at the position. They recently called up Ramon Torres, a fleet-footed 24-year-old middle infielder with excellent contact skills who has been serving as the utility infielder. He’d be a great guy to give a trial to, even while Escobar was still on the roster. Of course, Raul Mondesi exists as well, the 21-year-old who Kansas City liked enough to play him out of position for 62 games over the past two seasons. Mondesi is the shortstop of the future, and is currently doing excellently in AAA Omaha.
And if they want to trade and make a move this year? Look no further than Zack Cozart, a perfect fit for the Royals.
Look: by any reasonable measure, Escobar should not be a starting shortstop for a Major League Baseball team. He’s a lame duck 30-year-old who has been the worst hitter in baseball for the past three seasons and this year is on pace for the worst offensive season in the history of baseball; he’s on a team with two legitimate in-house options to take his place, both whom are young and making the league minimum, whose team is a perfect trading partner with another team that has a very good rental shortstop readily available. None of those statements are exaggerations.
That Royals management has done nothing about Escobar despite his clear poor play for years is baffling. Expect to continue being baffled. If Escobar continues to start every day while playing this poorly, there is literally nothing he can do for the team to pry his cleats away from the dirt.