by John Viril—
Alcides Escobar is an offensive liability.
There’s really no way to sugar-coat it. Long considered a “glove-first” player, Escobar raised hopes by hitting a solid .293/.331/.390 line last season. One of the key questions coming into the 2013 season was whether Escobar could maintain his improvement at the plate.
The answer is a resounding NO.
Rather than showing improvement, Alcides Escobar is suffering through his worst season as a hitter. His current .235/.263/.305 line yields a paltry .568 OPS that is considerably worse than his career mark of .645. Analysis of his batted ball data suggests that a changed approach at the plate has led to his steep decline.
The fact that jumps out from Escobar’s statistics is his low .263 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). That’s a huge drop from last season’s sky-high .344. One might dismiss this reversal as a particularly sharp case of regression, except that the shift mirrors another significant change. His ground ball rate has dropped to 45.6% down from 53.3%, while his fly ball rate has jumped to 32% up from 23.7% last season. In short, Escobar is hitting more fly balls.
Escobar’s decline is no accident. His batted ball data looks much like it did in 2010 when he hit 44.3% ground balls and recorded a similar .263 BABIP for the Brewers. His improved batting average over the next two seasons in Kansas City came when he hit over 53% ground balls. In 2012, Escobar’s GB/FB percentage jumped to 2.25, the highest in his career, and he enjoyed a breakout offensive season. Now that his GB/FB ratio has sunk to 1.40 (below his career rate of 1.69) he’s become an offensive problem.
Despite a solid line drive rate of 22.4%—which is higher than his career mark of 21.0%—hitting the ball in the air is wrecking havoc on Escobar’s batting average. Sabermetric analysis shows that ground balls have a higher likelihood of becoming hits, except that hitting the ball in the air leads to a higher slugging percentage. Speedy guys with little power like Alcides Escobar are better served by keeping the ball on the ground and beating out base hits.
Instead, Alcides Escobar is hitting the high pitch more often and ignoring the low ball. We can see it from heat maps comparing Escobar’s batted ball results from this season to last year.
Escobar’s heat map shows an overall decline almost everywhere except for high pitches over the middle of the plate, and a small node of low pitches over the middle.
Along with hitting the ball in the air more, Alcides Escobar’s plate discipline is now at an all-time low. He’s swinging at 38.5% of pitches out of the strike zone compared with his career rate of 33.8% (which isn’t good to begin with) and up from 32.7% last year. Not surprisingly, his first pitch strike percentage has also zoomed to 66.9% up from 61.3% last season. Overall, not only are pitches getting Escobar down in the count 2 out of 3 times he comes to the plate, they’re also enticing him to hit more balls in the air.
I suspect Escobar’s problems stem from his strong April in which he slugged 6 doubles and all 3 of his home runs for an OPS of .769. Perhaps Escobar became entranced with the idea of hitting for more power, which led him to look for more high pitches to drive.