Tuesday, November 17, 2015

2015 Season Review: Yunel Escobar

It’s hard to imagine where the 2015 Nationals would have been without Yunel Escobar. Originally brought over from the Athletics in the Tyler Clippard deal, Escobar was supposed to move from his natural shortstop position to second base where he would team up with Ian Desmond at short and Anthony Rendon at third to form a formidable infield. When Anthony Rendon went down for an extended period of time with an injury during Spring Training, Escobar shifted over to third base and never looked back. He posted a .314 batting average and a .348 wOBA on the way to earning the second or third most position player WAR (depending on your WAR source) on the Nationals.

On the surface, this is very exciting. He walked at a league average rate of just under 8%. He struck out at a below league average rate of 12% that stands out among some of the Nationals swing and miss type players. Both his walk rate and strikeout rate in 2015 were in line with career numbers. As expected, Escobar didn’t show a lot of power. He slugged only 9 home runs and 25 doubles on the way to an ISO of only .101. While he was a bit of out of place hitting third or fourth in the Nationals lineup in 2015 due to this lack of pop, he was very valuable when he was slotted in front of Bryce Harper, giving Harper a chance to knock him in.

Dig a little deeper, though, and some troubling numbers begin to pop up. That .314 batting average? Escobar’s highest batting average since his rookie year in 2007, by a wide margin. His next highest batting average was only .299 way back in 2009. On top of that, Escobar’s batting average was propped up by the 18th highest BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) in baseball of .347. Some players can sustain higher BABIPs. Players with good speed can boost their BABIP by reaching on some infield base hits. Other hitters post high BABIPs by hitting lots of hard hit line drives, the types of batted balls that tend to fall for base hits at a much higher rate than ground balls or fly balls. Unfortunately for Escobar, he is not a burner on the base paths and his batted ball mix (rate of groundballs to fly balls to line drives) was in line with his career rates during 2015. It’s hard to picture a scenario where Escobar can duplicate that BABIP in 2016, which means that .314 batting average is due to drop.

The statistical make up of Escobar’s season only looks worse when looking into his plate discipline. Escobar made a big change to his approach at the plate in 2015: he started swinging. A lot. He swung at 50% of pitches thrown to him, by far the highest rate of his career. That’s not inherently a problem, but it is for Escobar because he wasn’t all that selective in what he swung at. He swung at nearly 76% of pitches in the zone, the highest rate in Escobar’s career by over five percentage points. More disturbingly, he swung at 20% of pitches outside of the zone, the highest rate he has ever done that. Escobar had success with swinging out of his shoes because those extra swings still resulted in contact, as his contact rate for 2015 was just below his career mark. However, swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone is not a recipe for long term success. If this new swing happy Escobar is here to stay, it’s just another reason to expect that batting average to drop and that strike out rate to start ticking up.

Just like Escobar’s offensive statistics, his defensive statistics paint a promising picture on the surface. Moving to a new position at third, traditional statistics would have you believe that he adapted very quickly to the move. Escobar committed only seven errors on the year to go along with a .970 fielding percentage. The eye test, though, tells me those stats might be misleading. And the advanced stats back that theory up. Take your pick of the advanced defensive metrics, and Escobar ranks at or near the bottom of third basemen. By Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Escobar was last in the majors among regular third baseman with -11 runs saved, tied with Pablo Sandoval, the same Pablo Sandoval who Red Sox fans are ready to run out of town. By Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Escobar scored a disappointing -7.7, 17th place out of the 20 MLB players receiving regular time at third base. The actual number of runs saved or lost is clearly an estimate, but where Escobar ranks among his peers is not. While he can handle balls hit right at him, Escobar is not adept at moving to his left or right to make a play. Now, there are two reasons to be less concerned with Escobar’s defense, if you want to look for a silver lining. First, it was his first time ever playing third for extended periods of time. There has to be a learning curve on such a position switch and Escobar could improve as he gets more reps. At 33 though, asking Escobar to improve his first step on the ball might be asking for too much. Secondly, though, is the news from Nationals camp that Rendon is being told he will play third base permanently in 2016 (with the unsaid but assumed news that Escobar will finally make that move to second base). That’s encouraging news from my view point as Rendon is a vastly better defensive third baseman than Escobar and Rendon at third is better defensively than Rendon at second.

Of course, all this assumes that Escobar is still a National come 2016. There is a lot of chatter in the twitter world about how the Nationals might look to sell high on Escobar. While there are underlying statistics that raise doubts about Escobar’s projected offense in 2016, it’s not hard to see what teams might find attractive in a player like Escobar. With the play of Danny Espinosa last year and the rise of Trea Turner, the Nationals find themselves with a potentially crowded infield and more pressing holes to fill in the roster. If another team expresses interest in Escobar, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Mike Rizzo pull the trigger on a trade to bring in a bullpen arm or some outfield depth. I, for one, won’t be too sad to see him go.

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