With second baseman Rickie Weeks done for the season, the Brewers must find a replacement. For now, it appears to be Casey McGehee and Craig Counsell, but anybody can tell you that won’t cut it.
McGehee is barely a major league player, much less a starter on a contender, and Counsell himself has said that he can’t play every day.
The Brewers have called up Hernan Irribarren, but he also likely does not posses the talent necessary to play second base every day for a team contending for a playoff spot.
One in-house option that has been bandied about and the Brewers are indeed preparing, though, is top shortstop prospect Alcides Escobar. I have no doubt that Escobar will be a productive major leaguer in the future. However, is he ready to produce, and at second base, a position that generally requires a better bat than shortstop?
Escobar earned a cup of coffee in the majors last year in the form of a September callup, but there’s really nothing for us to learn from that. Instead, let’s examine his minor league numbers.
Defensively, Escobar shined last year, producing a plus-24 runs above average year with the glove in Double-A, his first year above average. Adjusting for the move from Double-A to the major leagues, I would say a fair estimate for Escobar as a major league shortstop would be between plus-5 and plus-15 runs at short over 150 games.
Although second base is an easier position to play in general, the adjustment would likely knock down our projection to between even and plus-10, which is still excellent.
Of course, fielding is not and never has been the issue with Escobar. The question is on what kind of offensive level he can produce.
Before examining that, let’s take a look at what kind of offensive numbers it will take for Escobar to be produce at the level of an average major leaguer, given his defensive skills. An average ML player produces two wins above replacement over 600 plate appearances.
We know that, over 600 PAs, a second baseman with average defense and fielding is worth 22.5 runs above replacement. So, then, this table below shows the weighted on-base average (wOBA) at the plate that's necessary for Escobar to be an average player.
wOBA necessary for 20 RAR
.327 (-2.5 BRAA)
.318 (-7.5 BRAA)
.308 (-12.5 BRAA)
Now, let’s examine Escobar’s hitting ability. Escobar has shown limited ability at the plate in the minors, never posting an OPS above .707 until last year with Double-A Huntsville. Then, in 2008, Escobar broke out offensively. In just under 600 PAs, Escobar compiled a line of .322/.367/.440, for a .807 OPS, a full 100 points better than his previous career high.
However, this line was created by an unsustainable batting average on balls in play of .380 and a line-drive percent of 19.3, 4 percent higher than his career mark. We are seeing some of this regression this year with Escobar’s advancement to Triple-A Nashville. With only a .313 BABIP, Escobar’s line has dropped to .268/.315/.357, a .672 OPS.
Two stats that I especially like to look at with minor leaguers are isolated power and isolated discipline, or ISP and ISD as I will abbreviate them (IsoP and IsoD are also used for these; some people use ISO simply for isolated power). Both operate on similar principles—ISP is SLG minus AVG, and ISD is OBP minus AVG.
Basically, these stats remove the impact of batting average on two stats that help us determine value most—OBP and SLG. The ability to hit for a high average declines as a player moves up the organizational ladder, due to both better defense and better pitching, and also varies due to luck.
However, plate discipline and power, what ISP and ISD measure, are skills that are independent of the massive swings that we see in AVG. Below are Escobar’s stats over his career in the minors.
Escobar’s isolated discipline and power stats have not shown improvement over his career in the minor leagues. As such, I have no reason to suspect that Escobar would magically see a rise in walks or power upon promotion to the big club.
As a result, similarly to what we’ve seen in the minors, Escobar will need a high batting average to sustain offensive production. If Escobar can put up a .300 average in the majors, he can be productive. Anything below .275 and his bat is likely not ready to play second base.
Let’s finally answer the question of whether or not his bat can be good enough to play in the major leagues, and for this year, especially at second. I think what we can expect from Escobar in the majors is something between his line at Triple-A and his major league-equivalent statistics from that level.
Major league equivalents, or MLEs, are formulas used to adjust for parks and skills of leagues to predict a minor league player’s performance in the major leagues. Here is the comparison of Escobar’s Triple-A performance to the corresponding MLE, obtained at Brew Crew Ball editor Jeff Sackmann’s Web site Minor League Splits.
As the OPS numbers make obvious, Escobar does not project as a very good hitter. I don’t believe that Escobar is as bad as his Triple-A MLEs would predict. If he were that bad, he would need to be over plus-20 with the glove to get back to replacement-level.
Perhaps, if Escobar can hit at the level he has at Triple-A and that he showed he could last year in Double-A, he would be ready to be a stopgap. Still, this level of production essentially caps Escobar’s value at second base for the rest of the year at a 1.1-win player. Only if he is able to field at a truly elite level (plus-20 runs or better) could Escobar play as an average major leaguer, which is the likely level of production the Brewers need as a contender.
In my opinion, Escobar needs to remain at shortstop to retain his value, and still needs seasoning in Triple-A. Hopefully Hernan Irribarren can fill in, but I firmly believe that Escobar is not the answer at this point in time.