You may have noticed Royals shortstop, (or was it third baseman?) Alcides Escobar had one hell of a second half. Or maybe you didn’t. You would have been excused, given the dreadful first half that clouded his numbers. Basically, he dug himself a hole so deep he scraped up against the Great Wall.
But really, don’t overlook Escobar’s second half offensive performance.
That’s not just a ho-hum improvement or progression to the mean. That was a monumental shifting of offense. Adding 100 points to his batting average and OBP? An over 200 point increase in OPS? Hell, he even bumped his walk rate from 4.8 percent in the first half to 6.8 percent in the second. This was an astonishing improvement.
The key stat to focus on above would be his sOPS+. That is his OPS+ relative to that particular split. We know that 100 is average and anything above is better than league average. (For example, a 110 OPS+ is 10 percent better than the league average.) For the first half, Escobar was 55 percent worse than a league average hitter. God awful. Then, in the second, he rebounded to a 103 sOPS+. For perspective, that was the first time he had a half of baseball better than a 100 sOPS+ since all the way back before the All-Star break in 2012. 2012! (He did post a dead even 100 sOPS+ in the first half of 2014.)
That was actually a continuation of a trend that started in the 2016 season. In the previous two seasons, Escobar would put up a stinker of a first half, buried in a pile of abysmal rates and raw numbers, then would rebound with a decent (comparatively speaking) performance post All-Star Break.
Each season, it’s something different. This year, it was a dismal first half BABIP that was countered by a second half rate that, had he accumulated enough plate appearances to qualify, would have tied him with his teammate Adalberto Mondesi for 32nd best in the majors. In 2016, it was an unexpected burst of power. Last year, his counting stats are consistent from one half to the next, but he put up those second half numbers in 80 fewer plate appearances.
However, Escobar’s biggest second half accomplishment didn’t come on the field. From The Athletic’s Rustin Dodd:
Escobar said he understands the situation. He has spent part of the 2018 season offering guidance and wisdom to Mondesi. He did not grouse when he lost his job. (“He always helped me,” Mondesi said.)
Royals watchers should not underestimate the impact Escobar has had in Mondesi’s development over the last two months of the season. Still just 22, Mondesi has always been the understudy to Escobar as the Royals chose to ride a consecutive game streak and declining performance. Mondesi was deployed at second and always seemed two or three hitless games away from spending time on the bench. The end of Escobar’s streak paved the way for Mondesi to stake his claim. That Escobar didn’t begrudge youth made the transition easier. As Escobar gracefully edged toward the shadows, it wasn’t a coincidence that Mondesi experienced a breakout.
Last winter, Escobar signed a one year deal for $2.5 million with a number of plate appearance bonuses built in to the contract. According to Cot’s Contracts, he cashed 17 of those for a tidy sum of $1.275 million. As I took to twitter to note each time Escobar hit a plate appearance milestone, several replied that it was a reward for good service during a pair of pennant winning seasons. I never saw it that way. That was supposed to be when the Royals exercised his $6.5 million option in 2017. That was a gift.
Despite a flurry of offense in the second half, Escobar will finish with a TAv either second or third from the bottom for the fourth consecutive year. Combined with a declining defensive ability, his -1.1 WARP was the worst mark of his career. Instead of (a lack of) contributions on the field, Escobar’s 2018 salary and bonus structure came to represent money spent for services rendered beyond the diamond. His role was to hold the position until the Royals were comfortable that Mondesi was ready for the every day rigors of the major leagues. Once that happened, it was up to Escobar to make the transition as painless as possible. By all accounts, that’s exactly what happened. Mondesi enters this winter with confidence and security. Mission accomplished. Even with Escobar’s negative WARP.
Now it’s time for the Royals and Escobar to part ways. Maybe his second half production will elevate status and get him that contract that didn’t come last winter. That’s highly unlikely given what we know about the current status of the free agent market and how ugly his numbers have declined the last several seasons, but by surrendering his position at short and moving around the field, he was able to prove a versatility that a team may find attractive in a limited role. His mentorship of Mondesi should play into that equation as well. Stranger things have happened. It’s OK to hope for a happy end to a major league career.
As another mainstay of the Royals pennant winning teams heads for the exit, it’s worth remembering his contributions. The web gems going deep in the hole to his right at short. Receiving a throw from Alex Gordon in left to provide the relay to Salvador Perez at home for the out. The Esky Magic at the top of the order in back-to-back Octobers. (He hit .311/.326/.467 in 31 postseason games.) The 2015 ALCS MVP award and the leadoff ambush inside the park home run against Matt Harvey in the World Series.
And now, as we watch Mondesi flourish, we’ll also remember Escobar’s contributions behind the scenes.