From his vantage point across the diamond, Omar Infante understood the value of Alcides Escobar. When the Tigers played the Royals these last two seasons, Infante studied the opposing shortstop and marveled at his range, hands and grace.
“He’s the best in the American League,” said Infante, who left the Tigers for a four-year, $30.25 million deal with the Royals this offseason.
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Infante may be right. Escobar led American League shortstops in ultimate zone rating, judged nearly 11 runs better than the average defender. He was also a finalist for a Gold Glove. The only problem: Escobar was also the worst everyday hitter in baseball.
This is not an exaggeration. His .559 on-base-plus-slugging percentage was the lowest among players who qualified for the batting title. Among those who received 600 plate appearances, Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro posted the next-lowest OPS at .631.
During the offseason, the Royals signed players such as Infante and outfielder Nori Aoki, which eliminates Escobar from batting in the top of the lineup. But this organization still has invested in Escobar as their shortstop of the future. He is under team control through 2017, and at least some offensive production is necessary.
Escobar was the last starter to show up at camp, as Wednesday marked the full-squad report date. This season will help determine if 2012, when Escobar batted .293, was a mirage. He finished that season with a .344 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which is 51 points above his career average and suggests a season blessed by good luck. He experienced the opposite last season: A .264 BABIP and a .234 average.
He mapped the route back to his previous production with one word: “Patience.” That quality was sorely lacking in 2013. Escobar hacked at pitches outside the strike zone at a career-worst 38.3 percent.
Escobar will never be an elite hitter. He lacks power. He has never walked more than 36 times in a big-league season. But the Royals insist he can still be a contributor. Manager Ned Yost mentioned Escobar’s ability to hit-and-run and advance runners. Hitting coach Pedro Grifol explained the key to Escobar’s plate-zone discipline was more mental than physical.
Grifol tapped his shoulder and raised his hand. “It’s from here up,” he said.
“It’s just focus,” Grifol added. “He knows where his pitches are. He just needs to focus and stay disciplined within that zone.”
One American League scout projected Escobar to settle in as a .270 hitter. When the scout watched Escobar in 2013, he saw a player who looked “too amped up” at the plate and unable to make adjustments. Yost portrayed Escobar as a player overrun by a snowball of failure.
“When they know they’re struggling a little bit, they get in a hurry to get caught up,” Yost said. “And that tends to have guys swing earlier in the count. And that’s what he did.”
Escobar portrayed none of the strain Wednesday. He skipped winter ball in his native Venezuela this offseason, and enjoyed the company of his family. In the early afternoon, Escobar joined his teammates for a lively session of batting practice. He sprayed line drives to all field. The display drew catcalls from Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, all stationed in the outfield.
“Big boy!” Hosmer called out after one of Escobar’s rounds ended.
“Like Billy,” Escobar responded.
The hecklers cracked up. “You’ve got a ways to catch me,” Butler said. “You better pack a lunch.”
Escobar fit in well with this already confident group. When asked if this team could win 90 games, he said he preferred 100.
What about hitting .290 again? He’d take that, too.
“.290?” he said. “Forty stolen bases? Oh, a nice year.”