Alcides Escobar Is on Pace for the Worst Offensive Season This Century
For the duration of his big-league career, Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar has never been known for his prowess (or lack thereof) at the plate. If there was any doubt about that, all we'd have to do is take a gander at his FanGraphs page.
Escobar debuted with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008, but didn't become an everyday player until 2010, a year before he joined Kansas City. Between 2010 and 2016, he's never been a league-average hitter when looking at his wRC+, and he only posted a mark over 90 twice during that span. His best overall campaign on offense took place in 2012, when he posted a wRC+ of 97 to go along with a .316 wOBA.
He did come close to those marks in 2014 (93 wRC+ and .307 wOBA), but Escobar hasn't been in the same ballpark (yes, that pun was intended) since.
With free agency on the horizon for the 30-year-old, having a decent 2017 is crucial with regard to his eventual value -- especially since we know that teams are valuing big-league talent differently these days.
His defense has been solid, but his performance at the plate has been even worse than usual. Like, to historic proportions.
The Worst Start Imaginable
He wasn't the worst -- Devon Travis and Curtis Granderson did him a solid there -- but he was awfully close. Through 86 plate appearances in the season's first month, he slashed an uninspiring .171/.200/.220, which led to the third-worst wOBA (.186) and wRC+ (6) among qualified hitters.
This was a month he'd probably like to forget as quickly as possible. However, we also know that one month, no matter how bad it actually was, doesn't necessarily have to ruin an entire season. Just look at the turnaround Travis has made.
Escobar has indeed gotten better in May, but it probably doesn't make him feel all that much more confident in his ability to dig himself out of this hole.
There's just about a week left to go before the calendar flips to June, but the damage has been done. Through 98 plate appearances in May, Escobar is slashing just .189/.221/.244, which currently yields the second-worst wOBA (.206) and wRC+ (20) in baseball this month entering action on Thursday, with only Chase Headley being worse.
That leads us to his current overall stats -- his 14 wRC+ and .197 wOBA are both the worst in baseball among qualified hitters, and it's not particularly close.
What's Going On?
There are some positives to take from Escobar's first 184 plate appearances this season. While his walk rate has decreased from 4.0% last year to his current 2.7% mark, his plate-discipline stats have actually improved -- he's chasing fewer pitches out of the strike zone, swinging at more in the strike zone, and he's making more contact than in 2016.
Furthermore, his hard-hit rate of 24.1% is on pace to be his best mark in a single season since 2010, when it checked in at 25.1%. There hasn't been much of a change to his soft-hit rate -- his 22.0% rate would be his second-highest in a season since 2011 -- but it's only been under 20.0% once in his career. So, he's had moderate success at the plate despite that.
That's where the good feelings end, though.
A lot has been made about the fly-ball revolution around baseball, but it's sometimes better for certain hitters to not join in. With a career home-run-to-fly-ball ratio of just 2.8%, putting the ball in the air more often doesn't make a whole lot of sense for Escobar.
Unfortunately, he's currently hitting more fly balls than ever before. The below table shows his line-drive rate (LD%), ground-ball rate (GB%) and fly-ball rate (FB%) each year since 2014.
Fewer line drives and ground balls paired with more fly balls for someone who doesn't hit home runs (and doesn't have one yet this season) isn't exactly the elixir needed to experience success.
There are also some splits that need to be pointed out here. Escobar has struggled in just about every situation possible, but after posting a 72 wRC+ against right-handed pitching last year, it's dropped to just 9 so far this year.
And while posting a 25 wRC+ at home in 2017 is nothing worth writing home about, he really hates hitting the road -- his wRC+ is currently sitting at 2 when he's away from Kauffman Stadium.
We've already touched upon how low Escobar's wOBA and wRC+ are this season, but where does it rank among those in recent history?
The below table displays the worst qualified hitter in each metric since the 2010 season, courtesy of FanGraphs.
While this isn't exactly uncharted territory for Escobar, the level at which his current offensive production is at would bring things to a new low.
If we expand the sample out all the way back to 2000, only Clint Barmes in 2006 (38 wRC+, .256 wOBA) and Neifi Perez in 2002 (39 wRC+, .247 wOBA) had worse years than the lowest wRC+ in the above group, which was Cesar Izturis' 2010 campaign.
This is not to say that Escobar is destined to have the worst offensive season this century (even if he is currently on pace for it). However, his work is certainly cut out for him. Memorial Day is fast approaching, but there are still four months left in the regular season. That's plenty of time to reverse some of his extreme struggles and salvage this year before having to sign his next contract.