A tour of the Royals’ wilderness of last-place finishes and 100-loss seasons could be guided by the shortstop.
The late 1990s and a decade into the new millennium brought a sampler of underperformers, not-readies and busts, from Mendy Lopez to Rey Sanchez to Neifi Perez.
The Royals believed their future was secure when Angel Berroa clubbed 17 home runs and hit .287 in 2003, capturing American League Rookie of the Year honors over Yankees import Hideki Matsui. But Berroa had peaked, and leading the league in errors could no longer be overlooked.
Tony Pena Jr. and Yuniesky Betancourt followed, and the non-competitive seasons continued.
There are many reasons for the Royals’ about-face as a franchise, their postseason run of 2014 and the American League’s best record this season. Among them, Alcides Escobar’s rise to a position among the AL’s top shortstops.
He’s headed to the All-Star Game as the AL starter, swept into a starring role with strong support from Royals fans and leading the balloting from start to finish.
“He deserves it,” said Royals second baseman Omar Infante. “He’s one of the best.”
With the glove, always. Escobar added to his highlight reel of wizardry this season with such plays as his long-distance backhanded flip against the Cardinals. He ranks high in many defensive metrics, and that part of his game has always been his calling card.
Infante calls Escobar one of the smartest he’s teamed with, in positioning and awareness. Escobar started a double play this season by stabbing a grounder and tossing it to second to catch a runner wandering too far from the bag. Christian Colon had plenty of time to finish the play.
The smarts apply to his base-running, too. Escobar ranked among the game’s most efficient base stealers from 2012 to 2014, with an 88.9 percent success rate — second best in baseball during that time.
But Escobar has reached All-Star status because his improved offense completes the package.
“Hitting, yes,” Escobar said. “I’ve worked hard on that. It’s made me a better player.”
Escobar accepted greater responsibility when Royals manager Ned Yost played a hunch late last season and moved him to the top of the battling order for the first time in Escobar’s career.
The move occurred with 15 games remaining in the season and in the midst of the playoff push. Escobar responded with a .375 average over that span.
The momentum carried into the playoffs, where Escobar hit .292, including .310 in the World Series.
This season, Escobar brought a .289 average into the Royals’ weekend series against the Blue Jays, and his 44 runs scored ranked second among AL shortstops.
“More is expected of me, I know that,” said Escobar, now firmly planted in the leadoff spot.
Escobar arrived in Kansas City as part of the Zack Greinke trade with the Brewers after the 2010 season, and the Royals saw him as a long-term solution. He’s missed only 15 games in his first three seasons. Last year, Escobar became the first shortstop in baseball since 2007 to play all 162 games.
His collision with the Athletics’ Bret Lawrie in April and a concussion after getting hit on the helmet by a pitch account for his 10 missed games this season, but he remains the Royals’ most durable shortstop in decades.
Escobar ranks second in franchise history in games played at the position, trailing only Freddie Patek, the 1970s stalwart and only other Royals shortstop to play in an All-Star Game.
Over the last three decades, AL All-Star shortstops have been a torch-passing relay from Cal Ripken Jr. to Alex Rodriguez to Derek Jeter.
Last season, Jeter was voted as a starter for the ninth straight season, his final one in baseball. The first to succeed Jeter is a distinction not lost on Escobar.
“He’s the Captain; he was the best guy,” Escobar said. “He was a favorite for everybody. I had much respect for him. I’m happy to be the first to (start) after him.”
Baseball Reference compares players with others in history at their current age. For Alcides Escobar, who is 28, those players include: Marty Marion, Bucky Dent and Ivan DeJesus.
Hits, which are the fifth most in the AL
Defensive runs saved, per FanGraphs, third in the AL among shortstops
At-bats per strikeouts, seventh best in the AL