The Brewers signed Escobar as a 16-year-old on international signing day of 2003, and he made his stateside debut the following summer as a 17-year-old in the Pioneer League. After working his way up to Double-A for the second half of his age-20 season in 2007, he cracked the Brewers’ top prospect list for the first time heading into 2008, ultimately topping the list as a five-star prospect in 2010 and peaking as high as 19th on the BP 101 that same offseason. The Brewers traded away the then-26-year-old J.J. Hardy to clear a path for Escobar, which should tell you all you need to know about how highly regarded he was as a prospect. Regaled universally for his plus-plus range and generally top shelf defensive profile at short, Escobar was tabbed as an impatient, powerless hitter, but one still capable of slapping his way to a .280-plus batting average with 30-steal speed.
Despite the shortstop-of-the-future billing, the Brewers shipped the then-23-year-old to Kansas City as the centerpiece of the Zack Greinke trade after he struggled in his first full big-league season. Since arriving in KC, Escobar has pretty much developed into exactly the type of player scouts envisioned him becoming. He hasn’t posted a walk rate over 4.2 percent in any of his four seasons in Royal blue, nor has he managed to crack the .100 ISO threshold or generate league-average offensive value.
But in the world of fantasy baseball he’s produced a rollercoaster of net-positive value over the last three years as his batting average has fluctuated. He returned top-10 value when he hit .293 two years ago, spiraled to 20th in a dismal 2013 campaign, then returned to glory with a strong rebound season this year that vaulted him into the top five for the first time. As a player strongly reliant on batted ball outcomes and speed the volatility is not entirely surprising, but let’s see if we can figure out what the future may hold for Mr. Escobar with a look under the hood.
What Went Right in 2014
First and foremost he didn’t suffer from terrible luck on the balls he put in play. While he did manage to hit a few more line drives this season, those gains in his batted-ball profile were largely offset by an increase in his popup rate and an overall growth in his flyball rate. As far as luck-independent indicators go, he certainly shouldn’t have been expected to produce a higher BABIP this year than last, and yet that’s exactly what he did. Last year’s grotesque .264 rate gave way to a much more pleasant .326 mark. Given just how extremely dependent Escobar’s offensive value is on batting average that’s obviously a huge deal. He’s only managed to generate about .35 points of his career OBP from walks and hits-by-pitch, meaning that if he puts up a .234 average like he did last year he’s just not going to get on base enough for his speed to generate positive fantasy value. But when he hits over .280 like he did this year he’s another player entirely, and one who holds sneaky value in even shallower leagues.
One way he did help himself bump that batting average up was by generating contact on better pitches this season. While his overall swing rate remained consistent (and highly aggressive), he took four percent more swings at strikes this year. Part of that was likely the result of having the good fortune to be ahead in the count more often; after seeing the third-highest rate of first-pitch strikes in his slump-riddled 2013 campaign that number regressed to a much more reasonable rate this season. He also managed to handle himself better when he did find himself down in the count, rebounding to a .244/.248/.276 contextual line in those situations compared with last year’s meager .201/.204/.220 showing. Fewer at-bats in which he trailed in the count along with markedly better performance in those situations provided a tremendous boost to his bottom line.
And then on the basepaths, one of Escobar’s greatest fantasy assets throughout his career has been his stolen base efficiency. He’s been successful in thieving a stellar 83 percent of the bases he’s attempted to swipe in his career, and over the last three years, that number has been a positively elite 89 percent on 99 attempts. So for whatever struggles he’s had to get on base consistently during that stretch, he’s certainly maximized his opportunities once there. That trend continued again this past season as he posted the second-most stolen base value among shortstop-eligible players. The extra bags, coupled with a career-high 34 doubles put him in scoring position a full 35 more times this year than last, and that in turn helped him post the sixth most runs among shortstops despite hitting ninth in over 70 percent of his 620 plate appearances.
What Went Wrong in 2014
In this, his illustrious age-27 season and presumed peak as a physical specimen, he still managed to hit all of three homers. Even at a position as power-starved as shortstop that total represented a significant black hole and dragged on his overall fantasy value. Given that he’s now hit a grand total of 21 career bombs in almost 3,200 big-league plate appearances the likelihood of him ever running into even seven or eight homers in a single season has to be considered remote at this point.
It’s also worth noting that he suffered a notable and precipitous drop in his effectiveness going the other way this season. After posting an OPS of .691 to the opposite field over his first five seasons that number crashed to .585 this season. The sample size is admittedly tiny, so random variation may very well account for the entirety of it. But he slapped significantly fewer groundballs to the right side this year, and that had been a staple weapon in his arsenal in the past, particularly when down in the count. The drop-off coincided with seeing fewer change-ups and more breaking balls behind in the count though, so it’s possible pitchers have started consciously trying to neutralize his slap-hitting tendencies (and found success doing so). It’s not a development I’ll be worried about if I’m targeting him on draft day next spring, but it’s something I’ll file away to check on if he struggles out of the gate.
What to Expect in 2015
His owners will certainly want to expect more of the same, and there aren’t any overwhelming flags to suggest they shouldn’t get it. That said, players who have a profile as heavily reliant upon batted-ball luck as Escobar are inherently tougher to project with confidence year to year. Escobar’s underlying skills— solid contact ability, plus speed, and outstanding baserunning efficiency—haven’t shown any signs of deterioration. And at age 28 it should still be at least a couple more years until we have to start worrying about physical breakdown. But as 2013 showed us, if he does run into a spell of bad BABIP karma, things can turn ugly pretty fast. The batted-ball profile is also something to keep an eye on, as a sustained decline in Escobar’s ability to utilize the whole field could spell further trouble for his batting average. But beyond that as long as he’s able to keep his average around or above .270 (and his OBP consequently at .300-plus) he’ll retain plenty of value on account of the decent average, potential for 30 stolen bases, and top-10 runs production among shortstops.
The Great Beyond
In real baseball terms, Escobar is a bit of an offensive liability, at least in the sense that his offensive production is middle-of-the-pack in a best-case scenario. Last season’s .255 TAv was a career high, yet it checked in only 18th-best among major-league shortstops with 300 plate appearances. But as a solid-batting-average, elite-stolen-base option, his fantasy value significantly outstrips that real world value at the dish, and for our purposes here that’s really all we care about. It’s probably fair to rate Escobar as a better-than-average defender up the middle, and even with the real world offensive limitations that package is a borderline first-division starter at the most premium of positions. Perhaps just as importantly Escobar is under team-friendly control though 2017 (including two well-below-market option years), and there’s little likelihood a cost-conscious team like the Royals will be eagerly looking to move him any time soon as a result. It’s possible, perhaps even probable, that Escobar runs into another BABIP-depressed season of mediocrity, but overall I like him quite a bit as a stable option at short for the next few seasons. He’s never going to be a sexy name on draft day, but he should provide consistent, quiet value at the position in most leagues after the first couple of tiers come off the board.
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