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Alcides Escobar is walking more, but it hasn’t worked out quite yet

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His offense still lags behind.

Kansas City Royals v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

On March 7, 2018, MLB.com writer Jeffrey Flanagan published a piece about ironman shortstop Alcides Escobar and his 2018 quest to “improve patience at the plate” and get on base more.

No, seriously. That’s not a joke!

“I don’t want to lose my aggressiveness if the pitcher throws strikes,” Escobar said. “But I want to work in Spring Training on walking more. ... I don’t care if they [strike me out] down here, but I will work on being more selective.”

...“I decided that after last year, I need to [walk more],” Escobar said, “That’s what I want to do here.”

Alcides Escobar, walking more? That’s like asking Jeff Goldblum to speak in a normal cadence, or for St. Louis residents to stop asking each other where they went to high school.

Sorry. Keeping jokes out of ‘Escobar wants to walk more’ is impossible.

The reason why Escobar’s desire to walk more is incredulous is because of just how little Escobar has walked in his career. Since 2010, Escobar’s first year as a regular player, there have been 475 players with at least 1000 plate appearances. Escobar has the 11th-worst walk rate, at an even 4% (other current or former Royals in the bottom 30 include Salvador Perez, Miguel Olivo, Yuniesky Betancourt, Miguel Tejada, Mike Aviles, Willie Bloomquist, and Omar Infante).

Generally, walk and strikeout rates are among the first stats to stabilize in a season. They are also less prone to noisy fluctuations like batting averages or RBI totals. So, considering Escobar’s historical walk-averse approach, it is inherently surprising that he is making good on his March promise to Flanagan and walking at a career high rate of 7.1%.

This is especially interesting considering that last year Escobar only walked at the glacial rate of 2.4%. That is about triple his 2017 rate. Generally, dudes entering their 30s don’t see any of their positive offensive statistics triple, but Escobar has done just that.

Also of note is that Escobar’s strikeout rate has also changed. A career 13.5% strikeout hitter, he has shaved that number into the single digits at 9.9%. That his strikeout rate has changed this much in addition to his walk rate is indicative of a change in approach.

So how is Escobar doing this? Let’s take a look at Fangraphs’ plate discipline metrics. But first, a quick overview per Fangraphs about what the varying metrics are:

  • O-Swing% = Swings at pitches outside the zone / pitches outside the zone
  • Z-Swing% = Swings at pitches inside the zone / pitches inside the zone
  • Swing% = Swings / Pitches
  • O-Contact% = Number of pitches on which contact was made on pitches outside the zone / Swings on pitches outside the zone
  • Z-Contact% = Number of pitches on which contact was made on pitches inside the zone / Swings on pitches inside the zone
  • Contact% = Number of pitches on which contact was made / Swings
  • Zone% = Pitches in the strike zone / Total pitches
  • F-Strike% = First pitch strikes / PA
  • SwStr% = Swings and misses / Total pitches

To put it into layman’s terms: a perfect baseball playing robot from the future would never swing at balls outside the strike zone and would only swing at balls inside the strike zone. They would never swing and miss at anything, only choosing to swing at pitches that are good ones to hit.

That means that an ideal plate discipline profile means high Z-Swing%, Z-Contact%, Contact%, and low O-Swing%, SwStr%, and Swing%. Meanwhile, O-Contact%, Zone%, and F-Strike% are more context-specific; what quantifies as ‘good’ numbers matter differently for a player makes solid contact outside the zone, doesn’t see all that many pitches in the zone, and almost never sees first strikes versus a player with the opposite traits.

Interestingly, Escobar’s plate discipline profile looks...not that different.

Only Alcides Escobar could achieve a significantly higher walk rate and a significantly lower strikeout rate by swinging more, but that’s what the data shows. Escobar is swinging more at pitches both outside and inside the strike zone, but he’s also making more contact in both areas. However, that does jibe with his general idea. Escobar seems to be hunting for his pitches, being more aware of the strike zone, and is comfortable fouling off pitches that he knows aren’t clear balls or hittable strikes.

But it hasn’t worked for his overall line. Escobar is slashing .200/.274/.333, and despite a career high isolated power and walk rate, his on base plus slugging (OPS) of .607 is significantly worse than his career average of .640.

The most interesting thing, though, is that Escobar should be doing much, much better.

Escobar is hitting the ball hard 40.3% of the time, by far a career high, and is hitting the ball hard more often than Francisco Lindor, Buster Posey, and Bryce Harper. And Escobar has been simply unlucky; Escobar’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .209 is extremely (and probably unsustainable) low.

Unfortunately, Escobar’s batted ball distribution is way out of wack. Escobar is hitting fly balls at a prodigious rate, at 43.1% of all his batted balls. That figure is right around sluggers like Yoan Moncada (43.2%, .280 ISO), Khris Davis (43.8%, .277 ISO), and Freddy Freeman (44.1%, .235 ISO). Escobar is pulling that from his line drive percentage, which is at a career low.

And for a guy with as little power as he has, Escobar is basically sabotaging his results. If you’re hitting home runs on 19% of all fly balls like Mike Moustakas, hitting more fly balls is good. But when you’re hitting homers on 3.6% of your fly balls like Escobar, fly balls are just easy outs.

At any case, it’s clear that Escobar is doing something purposefully different with his offensive approach. He’s got career highs in walk rate, fly ball rate, and hard hit balls at the same time that his strikeout rate and line drive rate are at career lows. If he sticks with it, Escobar will more likely than not start to reap the benefits of added on base percentage and power from his approach. The fear is that, if he still shuffles along in a slump for a while longer, he’ll go back to hacking away. That for sure won’t work.