by John Viril—
Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar has enjoyed a fabulous month of April. Escobar is batting .290/.337/.452 in 102 PA’s. He’s tied with Alex Gordon and Billy Butler for the team lead in home runs with 3. His fielding has also been terrific, reversing last year’s anomalous negative ranking in Ulitmate Zone Rating. Currently his UZR/150 (extrapolating his UZR rating over 150 games) is an outstanding 13.5. Overall, Escobar is tied with P James Shields for the team lead in fWAR value at 1.0 after 23 games, a pace which would put him over 7.0 fWAR for the season. Throw in Escobar’s 6 stolen bases in 6 attempts, and he’s been a 5-tool player.
Folks, that’s superstar-level performance.
Obviously, it’s only been one terrific month which I don’t really expect him to maintain. We should still recognize Alcides Escobar’s outstanding play. I suspect pitchers James Shields or Ervin Santana will win “player of the month” honors for the team, but Escobar should at least be in the discussion.
More significantly, this month’s performance suggests that Escobar might have improved his game over the winter. In a well known study, Russell Carleton researched when certain statistics “stabilized”. In short, “stabilization” for a hitter means how many plate appearances are necessary before we can say that a hitter has increased his performance level for a given stat. “Stabilization” does not mean we can throw out the prior career performance when making performance projections. What it does mean is that the most recent stats should carry a disproportionately high weighting.
With respect to Alcides Escobar, the pertinent stats are walk rate (BB%) and K rate (K%). With 102 PA’s, both these stats have “stabilized”. And, when compared to his earlier seasons, Escobar’s walk rate and K rates have drastically improved. This season, Escobar’s BB% rate has jumped from 4.9% to 6.9%—a 28% improvement. Meanwhile, Escobar’s K% has dropped from his career rate of 13.2% to 7.8%. In his 4th season, Escobar has clearly improved his plate discipline and pitch selection.
One of the biggest questions about Alcides Escobar coming into the 2013 season was if he could sustain his “breakthrough” at the plate. Many skeptics pointed to his .344 BABIP in 2012 as mere good luck. Projection systems saw a significant backslide in Escobar’s hitting performance, predicting a significant drop in runs created (wRC+) from last season’s 98 (2% below a league-average hitter). Instead, Escobar’s wRC+ is up to 114 in April. While some of this improvement has been driven by what looks like a power surge (his April ISO is .161 vs. his career rate of .094), Escobar has put up these numbers despite a low BABIP .289.
WIth Escobar’s low BABIP and his improvement in “stabilized” statistics, we can now believe that he has made a significant hitting breakthrough in his age 26 season.