Who: Yunel Escobar, No. 5. Shortstop. 6’2, 205 LBS. 29 years old. Five MLB seasons in Atlanta and Toronto, 639 games played.
Provenance: La Habana, Cuba. Drafted in the second round of the 2005 amateur draft by Atlanta. Acquired by the Blue Jays on July 14, 2010 along with Jo-Jo Reyes in exchange for SS Tyler Pastornicky, LHP Tim Collins and SS Alex Gonzalez.
Contract Status: Signed two-year, $10 million contract extension last season, which begins this year. Blue Jays hold two additional option years at $5 million per season for 2014 and 2015.
Tao-Approved Hashtags: #YEscobar! #YuMad?
Career Stats: .289 AVG, .366 OBP, .401 SLG, .766 OPS in 2703 plate appearances. 44 home runs, 118 doubles, 21 stolen bases, 351 runs scored.
2011 Stats: .290 AVG, .369 OBP, .413 SLG, .782 OPS in 590 plate appearances over 133 games. 11 homers and 77 runs scored. 4.3 wins above replacement (as per Fangraphs).
Love for the Glove: Yunel has never posted negative Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) numbers at shortstop in any of his major league seasons. His 45.0 runs saved (according to Total Zone with Location Data (TZL)) is tops among MLB shortstops since 2007. His UZR/150 over that time is only eighth best (3.0), and suffers because of 65 fielding errors (including 36 throwing errors).
Looking Back: There were few stories that were as pleasant to watch unfold as Yunel Escobar’s last season. After a cold end to his first season as a Blue Jay, Escobar thrived at the top of order, spending 111 games in the leadoff spot and posting a .366 OBP in the role. Moreover, he looked like he was having fun, and his joy on the field is pretty infectious.
Escobar continued to be a bit of a curiosity, in that he is a big-bodied shortstop without a ton of power (his .121 isolated power mark last season placed him 12th among qualified shortstops). He also does not possess an extraordinary level of speed, having been successful on only three steals attempts last season. On the other hand, he never gets cheated on an at bat, and managed to leg out a team-high 19 infield hits in 2011
One of the most remarkable improvements for Escobar last season was the smoothing out of a hitch in his swing that contributed to a lot of pop-ups in 2010. He dropped his rate of infield fly balls from 10.6% in 2010 to a remarkable 0.9% in 2011, which was the third lowest mark in all of baseball (behind Howie Kendrick’s 0.0% and Joey Votto’s 0.6%.)
Escobar’s patience, willingness to take a walk and ability to hit the ball to all fields made him a valuable piece of the Jays offense, and likely the best leadoff hitter the team has seen in some time.
Looking Forward: With a new (and very club-friendly) deal to his name, Yunel would appear to be a Blue Jay for at least the next two years, and maybe beyond. He’s a solid all-around player, though last year’s offensive performance is likely close to the top-end of what we can expect from him going forward. At 29, it’s hard to argue that there’s much additional upside yet to be unearthed. (Is that a mixed metaphor?)
We’ve always had concerns about Escobar’s build, because a big strong body like his seems destined to break down and slow up as he ages. Moreover, the bat doesn’t really play in a corner infield spot, so it won’t be as easy as sliding him over if his dexterity eludes him. On the other hand, some of Escobar’s excellence in the field owes to smart positioning and taking good first steps to the ball, which are attributes which should hang in there, even as he crosses that precipice into his thirties.
The Jays will soon be placed into a position of having to make a decision on Adeiny Hechavarria’s role with the big league club, but with the news out of Spring Training that he’s begun taking ground balls at second, it appears as though the team is willing to move forward with Escobar.
2012 Expectations: Take out a few months where he became a whipping boy in Atlanta, and Yunel’s performance over his five years of big league ball look pretty consistent. For the coming season, it’s reasonable to expect an OPS somewhere above .760. Add in an extra homer every six weeks or an extra double per month, and that number crawls up over .800.
All of which would make us happy to be a fan Yunel.