Alcides Escobar might be the best defensive shortstop in major league baseball. He is a regular highlight machine. When I see a ball hit towards his side of the field, I sit up in my seat, focus my eyes and let my heart skip a beat. Anything seems possible out there between third and second base.
Watching Alcides Escobar play defense is watching genius at work.
Saying all that makes it hard to say this: Escobar simply hasn't been able to hit this season. At all. After Wednesday's 1-for-4 effort in the Royals 9-8 loss against Toronto, his batting average improved to .207. His OBP and slugging percentage both sit at .241. That makes his OPS .481.
When does Escobar's bat make him unplayable in the field?
It's a tough question. There is some precedent for this type of situation in recent Royals history. Many of you will remember Tony Peña Jr., the former Royals shortstop who actually hit so poorly that he was turned into a pitcher. Peña had a knack for the difficult play, and his smooth appearance at short earned him top defensive marks. But he could not hit either.
After posting a halfway-respectable .640 OPS in his first full season as the starter in 2007, Peña fell off of a cliff in 2008, hitting .189 with a .398 OPS over 225 at-bats. After 51 at-bats and a .098 average in 2009, he was finished, at least as a hitter.
Escobar has now had 216 at-bats. It shouldn't be too early to judge. After showing some pop in spring training, Escobar has managed just seven extra-base hits thus far.
I remember when Yuniesky Betancourt took a lot of flak for being among the worst hitters in the Majors. But even in his woeful first half-season with the Royals in 2009, Betancourt still had 19 extra base hits in 246 at-bats. His OPS with the Royals in 2009 was .639, and even his paltry .269 OBP was 28 points higher than Escobar's so far this year.
The departures of Escobar's two predecessors were met with wild cheers of approval from the fanbase. How long can his glove keep him from the same fate?
He leads all American League shortstops in range factor and assists. Although this is slightly less official, I'd be willing to bet that he leads the league in "WOW" plays too. For now, Escobar's defense makes him a slightly above-average player.
That brings me to my greater point.
We all expect Escobar to hit better. After all, he doesn't have a terrible swing. I would think most fans would be happy simply with his below-average production last year in Milwaukee. Right now, he isn't even producing close to that and Ned Yost needs to adjust his philosophy accordingly.
Up until now, Yost has been steadfast in his belief that Escobar needs to continue to get at-bats, regardless of situation. That means Escobar is repeatedly being asked to hit in clutch, late-game situations, a scenario in which Alcides has continually failed to rise to the occasion. At this point it's hard to blame Escobar. He clearly lacks confidence.
He has the look of a guy who knows he's not the best option in those situations. With Mitch Maier, Mike Aviles and Wilson Betemit generally available to pinch-hit late in these games, he is absolutely right. I understand player development is a big goal for this season, but how exactly is Escobar developing by continually coming up short in clutch situations?
It's becoming clear at this point Escobar needs to be pinch-hit for at the end of any close game. It's a disservice to him and the team to do otherwise.
Yes, before you even ask, I think he still needs to be the everyday starter for now. How can I say otherwise? Not many players can make your heart skip a beat by playing defense.