Opinion

The key(s) to Alcides Escobar’s hot streak

Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar.
Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar. jsleezer@kcstar.com

This is the continuation of a weekly stats column to examine how this year’s Royals compare to the 2015 World Series champions. All numbers through Tuesday’s game.

Shortstop Alcides Escobar has turned a disappointing season around, posting the Royals’ best WAR among position players in the last 30 days while hitting 40 percent better than league average over that timespan according to the all-encompassing Weighted Runs Created Plus.

So what has Escobar improved hitting-wise? It might not be in the way you’d expect.

What’s interesting is the ways in which Escobar has not gotten better. His strikeout rate has remained about the same, while his walk rate has only ticked up slightly.

Escobar, instead, has experienced success by completely flipping his batted-ball profile in two areas.

One is evident in this graph, which shows the 30-game running average for Escobar’s pull rate over the course of his career.

   

Escobar has nearly doubled his pull rate over the last month. We saw another example of that working well for him last night, as he muscled a pitch up over the plate for a game-tying single to left.

Since Aug. 12 — a day Escobar went 2-for-4 and officially started his recent hot streak — he has worn out the pull side with hits.

In his first 114 games, Escobar had just 31 hits to the pull side of the field, according to StatCast data. In his hast 24 games, he has 17.

   

What’s fascinating with Escobar is that his success doesn’t appear to be from hitting the ball harder. In fact, his average exit velocity before Aug. 12 (84.3 mph) was actually better than it has been since (83.0).

So why the improved results? As we mentioned in a previous Eric Hosmer post, hitting it soundly is only part of the equation. Escobar, with his new approach, has greatly increased his average launch angle.

Before Aug. 12: 9.0 degrees

After Aug. 12: 15.6 degrees

The difference on video is subtle but important. This is just a sample, but here is Escobar hitting a same-location pitch on Aug. 5 against Toronto (left) and Sept. 4 against Detroit (right).

The first pitch is hit hard at 95 mph, but because the launch angle is lower, Darwin Barney is able to make a diving play at third for an out. Escobar makes better contact on the second pitch (99 mph), but he also has more of an uppercut swing to loft the ball. This makes it so no defender can get to it, as the ball ends up in the left-field seats.

Escobar has saved what appeared to be a lost season with his hot stretch, helping to keep the Royals in the playoff hunt.

And while we often hear that hitters must go the opposite way for sustained success, the shortstop has proven over the last month that there’s more than one way to succeed in baseball, as a pull-happy, uppercut approach appears to be the key to his late-season surge.

Let’s take a look at this week’s team numbers.

Hitting

2015 — .269/.322/.412 (Batting average/On-base percentage/Slugging percentage)

2016 — .262/.314/.400

Last 7 days — .257/.320/.418

The Royals continue to toil near the bottom of the AL in nearly every hitting category. That includes home runs, where the Royals have hit 125 — 16 fewer than the next-closest team (Los Angeles Angels).

Hitting with runners in scoring position

2015 — .282/.347/.426

2016 — .269/.332/.404

KC’s best hitter with RISP? That would be Kendrys Morales, who is hitting 35-percent better than league average according to wRC+ with a team-high seven home runs in that situation.

Starting pitching

2015 — 4.34 ERA, 16.8 K%, 7.6 BB%

2016 — 4.56, 20.1, 8.1

Last 7 days — 5.00, 14.9, 7.5

Free passes continue to be a problem for Royals’ starters, as their 8.1 percent walk rate ranks fourth-worst in the American League.

Relief pitching

2015 — 2.72, 22.9, 8.7

2016 — 3.10, 22.9, 8.0

Last 7 days — 3.27, 21.7, 5.4

The Royals’ bullpen has posted an 80.1 percent strand rate, which is easily the best in baseball. That’s also on pace to be the seventh-best mark since the turn of the century.

Defense

2015 — 51 defensive runs saved (.315 per game, 2nd in MLB)

2016 — 37 defensive runs saved (.268 per game, 6th in MLB)

Recalling Whit Merrifield has the potential to help the Royals defense, as he ranks sixth among the team’s position players with five defensive runs saved this year.

Top 5 in Fangraphs WAR

2015 — Cain 6.6, Moustakas 3.8, Hosmer 3.5, Gordon 2.8, Ventura 2.7

2016 — Duffy 2.9, Cain 2.5, Perez 2.4, Herrera 2.1, Dyson 1.8

In case you were wondering, Danny Duffy’s 2.9 WAR ranks 12th among starters in the AL according to FanGraphs. Masahiro Tanaka, Corey Kluber and Chris Sale are at the top of the leaderboard at 4.7 WAR each.

Bottom 5 in Fangraphs WAR

2015 — Infante -0.9, Guthrie -0.9, Almonte -0.4, Gomes -0.3, Coleman -0.2

2016 — Young -1.1, Pounders -0.5, Mondesi -0.4, Fuentes -0.2, Burns -0.2

Among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Raul A. Mondesi’s 27 wRC+ ranks 409th out of 415 qualified players. The infielder likely has a bright future, but at this point, he remains overmatched at the plate.

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell

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