At times it’s easy to get bogged down in the numbers from season to season. We see shifts in OPS, WAR, and pretty much any other category we want to pick out to draw our conclusions about a player. What’s often forgotten in all the stats is that baseball is not played in a fishbowl—it’s a game of people. Since a much-needed change of scenery brought him to the Toronto Blue Jays, Yunel Escobar is on his way to becoming the best shortstop in the American League.
The jump in numbers from one season ago has been staggering. Through Aug. 8, Escobar was hitting .302, had an OPS of .820, and walked for 11 percent of his plate appearances. When he left Atlanta one year ago he was hitting .238 and had an OPS of .618—though he was drawing walks at 12.3 percent. As if that wasn’t enough, he has already doubled last year’s home run totals (10 in 2011 from four in 2010), put up more RBIs (41 from 35), and he is third in all of Major League Baseball (tops in the AL) in WAR for shortstops with 4.2.
The batting stats are eye-popping among shortstops and his approach at the plate is largely responsible. While Escobar has always been lauded for his patience, it has improved this season even though he has struck out more often. His Swing Percentage is below 40 percent (38.8) and his O-Swing Percentage is only 19.1 percent—both down roughly 6 percent from the 2010 season.
An interesting note is the transformation of where the balls off of his bat have been going. Since joining Toronto, Escobar’s GB/FB ratio has been over 2.0, which is up from the 1.6-1.8 range it had been in Atlanta the prior two seasons. Essentially, Escobar has been much more effective at getting on top of pitches, as evidenced by his staggeringly low 1.1% IFFB% (Infield Fly per Flyball).
His hits have been driven to the gaps in the infield. Given that he has spent the majority of the season hitting leadoff or second, he’s been more concerned with putting the ball in play than anything. He has been getting a steady diet of fastballs from AL pitching (60.5 percent of pitches faced have been fastballs) and he has been driving them through the infield. It should be noted, however, that the majority of his power hitting has come from crushing off-speed pitches.
The numbers are up across the board, but what brought about these changes?
Dwayne Murphy and Co. have been gaining notoriety around the MLB for their ‘grip it and rip it’ approach. The rough theory is this: you know which pitch you can hit off of a guy, sit on it and hit it when you get it—seems simple enough. Even though it isn’t a revolutionary philosophy the evidence of its effectiveness has been seen throughout the Jays’ line-up, and Escobar is a beacon of success.
It certainly explains the low swing rates as Escobar has simply been holding off on the pitches he’s not looking for, and he has been excellent at taking pitches out of the zone. Given the amount of power pitching talent in the AL it also makes sense why he’s had such a steady diet of fastballs in comparison to his time in the NL. As far as the off-speed stuff providing his power—sliders and changeups over the plate have been finding the outfield gaps or going over the fence. With Escobar’s swing mechanics, a slower pitch gives him more type to unwind on the ball and get more power.
Murphy recently said that Escobar could have “middle of the line-up” power if he would relax the way he coils his swing—don’t be shocked if he adds more of a power element to his game in the next couple of years.
Playing at Rogers Centre has done wonders for Escobar’s offensive output as well. The building formerly known as Skydome currently sits fourth in all of baseball with a park factor of 1.181 behind only The Ballpark at Arlington, Coors Field, and Fenway Park. Escobar’s numbers certainly reflect his love of playing on the field turf in Toronto. His power numbers are higher at home—seven of his ten homers have been in Toronto—as are his batting average and walks.
Part of this can be explained by the friendly dimensions of the park—328 feet to the left field bullpen—and Escobar’s swing meshing nicely with the angles inside. I’d also argue that part of it has to do with the great batter’s eye in Toronto. Many players have noted over the years that the dark navy backdrop in dead center is great for picking up pitches.
That’s the on-field context, but the off-field has had as positive an effect on Escobar’s production as anything. From the day he arrived in Toronto, the slate was wiped clean when management was adamant that they didn’t care about his differences with Bobby Cox and the Braves, and he was embraced by the clubhouse immediately. Leading the welcome party was Jose Bautista who often goes unheralded for his leadership.
Bautista has served as the key ambassador for new acquisitions in Toronto and has been instrumental in bringing the team together. With a core that includes many Spanish speaking players and coaches (Escobar doesn’t speak English well), Yunel has been much more at home in Toronto and the numbers haven’t lied.
In a recent interview, The Globe and Mail‘s Jeff Blair asked the Jays’ Shortstop what has spurred his improvement in 2011.