The Nationals acquired Yunel Escobar from the Oakland A's this past offseason for Tyler Clippard. The move was made primarily to give the Nats a strong defensive middle infielder. They knew he could handle the bat some, too, but I doubt Nats GM Mike Rizzo expected him to perform quite as well as he has.
There definitely hasn't been much question throughout Escobar's career that he can handle the bat. Escobar boasts a .278/.348/.382 career line. He hit .326 as a rookie, and has had three other full seasons where he's hit .288 or better in his eight year career. He also presented the Nats with a nice chance to improve their overall contact rate. On a team that features quite a few hitters with high strikeout rates, Escobar figured to be a nice change of pace. He has just an 11.3% career strikeout rate and has never had a season in which he struck out in more than 12.6% of his plate appearances. Just two position players (Denard Span and the departed Kevin Frandsen) on the 2014 Nats had a strikeout rate lower than Escobar's career worst strikeout rate.
On Monday, Escobar had his second five hit game in the past week. This raised his season line to .342/.388/.423. It also extended his hitting streak to five games and his on-base streak to seven games. He's handled third base fairly well with Anthony Rendon on the disabled list, so he's even gone above and beyond what the Nats expected from him defensively... even if the metrics don't love him (-5 DRS, -1.3 Fielding Runs Above Average). Let's focus on his hitting, though.
Apart from the obvious fact that he's a veteran with fairly well established baselines that he's far exceeding, there are some other factors that warrant some skepticism about Escobar's ability to keep this up:
- Escobar hasn't had an extra base hit since April 22. His past 23 hits have all been singles
- 86% of Escobar's hits this season have been singles, up by a wide margin over his career 76% rate
- Escobar currently has a .371 BABIP. His career BABIP is .302. Outside of his rookie year (.364), his career high is .317.
Let's look at some stats......
Before we look at the BABIP and see if there are any indicators that it hasn't all been good fortune, let's take a look at that Isolated Power. We'll note that Escobar's ISO in his first five (predominantly his best seasons) was generally well over .100. When Escobar was really a .290-.300 hitter, he was flashing some extra base pop. He was hitting the ball harder (we would expect... we'll get to that). In the seasons since he went from being a really good average hitter to a mediocre average hitter, his power has shown quite a bit of decline. In only one of those years where Escobar was batting between .250 and .260 did he have an ISO higher than .100. This season, it's at .081. Escobar's walk rate and strikeout rate aren't that far off from where they've been the past few years, so what he's relying on is primarily...... BABIP.
Let's take a look at that BABIP. His BABIP so far in 2015 is .371, which is .069 higher than his career average. It's .007 higher than his BABIP was in his (outlier) rookie season and .054 higher than it's ever been in any other season of his career. There are some things which can have a positive effect on BABIP for hitters.....
- Some of the faster baserunners will end up with slightly higher BABIP because they beat out more than their fair share of infield hits
- Guys who hit a lot of line drives will generally have a higher BABIP
- Ground balls are more likely to turn into hits than fly balls
- I thank Fangraphs for adding a new tool recently, which I'll utilize when we look at Escobar's components below. You would expect that hard hit balls are more likely to turn into hits than anything else
Let's have a look at Escobar's batted ball profile......
With the exception of 2010 (and 2015), we'll see about what we expect when it comes to hard hit balls. 2010 was a bizarre year for Escobar. It was actually one of just three seasons in which Escobar maintained a Hard Hit Ball rate of 30% or higher. It was also the season where he started so poorly for the Braves that they traded him to Toronto, and the only one of his first five seasons where he wasn't generally excellent. The scary thing about his soft/medium/hard contact is that his soft hit ball rate is right around where it was last season. He's not hitting the ball real hard, but he's finding holes in the defense. While some may want to say that he's showing a little more control over where he's hitting the ball, luck factors in a bit there, too.
Let's look at what we do know a little more about, since we've used it in the past. Escobar is hitting more line drives than he has the past few seasons, and is actually right in line with his (outstanding) rookie season. He's also hitting more ground balls than he ever has before, with over 60%. For a player who isn't heavily reliant on speed, we wouldn't think that this would be a major advantage, but they are still more likely to turn into hits than fly balls that are in play. The fact that his line drive rate is up and his ground ball rate is (way) up should tell us that his fly ball rate is (way) down. Escobar's 3.33 GB/FB rate is actually 0.89 higher than it ever has been in a single season before, and 1.28 higher than his career rate. I would expect some correction here, but part of this could be due to a change in approach as well.
His luck regarding how hard he's making contact with the ball doesn't really seem sustainable. The ground ball to fly ball rate could be more due to skill. If he's hitting more line drives, he's squaring the ball up a bit better, which should lead to some improvements in his hard hit ball rate as the year wears on, but hasn't so far. If he's hitting more grounders, he's staying on top of the ball a bit better and not getting under it. For a hitter who doesn't have an awful lot of power, we don't want him hitting a lot of balls in the air. His HR/FB rate (11.1% so far this year, which is a touch above league average... 7.6% career, which is about 2.5 points below league average) doesn't look sustainable, so we should expect him to make more outs on fly balls than the average hitter.
Right now, Escobar's balls in play profile compares favorably to the 2007-2009 Yunel Escobar. Still, the .371 BABIP is overdue to correct itself some... particularly if he doesn't start making some more hard contact. It seems incredibly unlikely that he'll continue to have as much success hitting ground balls with eyes as he has so far this season. If he can keep doing what he's been doing and add just a little more pop, it wouldn't be that big of a shock if he returned to being the ~.315 BABIP type of player that he was earlier in his career. That'd likely leave him in the .290-.300 range, which is quite a bit better than any of us were expecting.