September 3, 2015

Eduardo Escobar can be the Twins’ shortstop solution … if they let him

Eduardo Escobar Twins

Shortstop has been a weakness for the Twins since ... well, forever, basically. Roy Smalley is the best shortstop in team history, Zoillo Versalles won the AL MVP award in 1965, and Greg Gagne was a solid all-around starter for two World Series winners, but for the most part Twins shortstops have been an underwhelming collection of light-hitting, utility man-caliber players. Here are the all-time team leaders in games started at shortstop:

Zoillo Versalles     1043
Greg Gagne           1021
Cristian Guzman       812
Roy Smalley           783
Pat Meares            702
Leo Cardenas          469
Danny Thompson        436
Jason Bartlett        301
Nick Punto            235
Ron Washington        232
Denny Hocking         208
Pedro Florimon        195

Not a pretty group. Of those 12 players to start at least 175 games only Smalley, Leo Cardenas, and Jason Bartlett had an OPS above .700 at shortstop and none of them cracked a .750 OPS. Things have been particularly bad post-Gagne, as the Twins lived with Pat Meares for too long, got an All-Star half-season followed by a bunch of disappointment from Cristian Guzman, and misguidedly chose Juan Castro over Bartlett and Tsuyoshi Nishioka over J.J. Hardy.

During the 14-season period from 2000 to 2013 the Twins' shortstops posted an OPS that was above the American League average twice--in 2001, when Guzman had his All-Star first half, and in 2010, which was Hardy's lone season in Minnesota. In those 14 seasons their shortstop OPS ranked among the league's top five zero times, ranked 10th or worse eight times, and ranked 12th or worse six times. Here's the year-by-year horror show:

YEAR      OPS     RANK
2013     .614     13th
2012     .580     13th
2011     .612     13th
2010     .692      6th
2009     .683      9th
2008     .648     12th
2007     .657     10th
2006     .713      8th
2005     .608     14th
2004     .688     11th
2003     .714      8th
2002     .679     12th
2001     .747      7th
2000     .692      9th

What always struck me as especially disappointing about the Twins' inability to develop or acquire quality shortstops is that they've long been an organization built around player development and scouting that also places a huge emphasis on speed and athleticism. All of which would seemingly lead to an abundance of quality shortstops, much like the Twins have typically had an abundance of quality center fielders, but instead the opposite has been true.

There may finally be some light at the end of the shortstop tunnel, although the Twins have done everything they can to avoid seeing it. Two years ago they made light-hitting waiver-wire pickup Pedro Florimon the Opening Day shortstop, only to cut bait after he hit .092 through 33 games. This year they handed the Opening Day job to Danny Santana and stuck with him through three months of historic ineptitude hoping his fluke rookie performance would return.

In both years they eventually turned the position over to Eduardo Escobar and in both years he did a good job. Acquired from the White Sox in mid-2012 as part of the Francisco Liriano trade, Escobar has started 160 total games at shortstop for the Twins and has hit .285/.331/.452 with 11 homers and 50 doubles in those games. For some context, that .783 OPS is the highest in Twins history for any shortstop with 100-plus starts and only Smalley (.744) is within 50 points.

Escobar's production is particularly impressive at a time when shortstop offense is down across MLB. During the past three seasons shortstops have hit .256/.308/.372 for the lowest production of any position. In the games he's started at shortstop during that time Escobar has out-produced the average shortstop by 100 points of OPS or 15 percent. His overall 2013-2015 production is lower at .263/.306/.407, but still tops the average shortstop by 35 points of OPS.

Escobar also rates well defensively, passing the eye test with sure hands, solid range, and plenty of arm strength while grading out above average according to advanced metrics Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Runs Saved, and Plus/Minus. Escobar is certainly not without his flaws--chief among them bad and occasionally terrible plate discipline--but when given an opportunity to play shortstop he's been above average offensively and defensively.

So why have the Twins been so hesitant to hand the starting job to a 26-year-old switch-hitting asset on both sides of the ball? Figuring out their motivation for choosing shortstops has always been confusing, but in this case it's possible that they simply never expected Escobar to be this good and perhaps remain skeptical. I'll definitely admit to being guilty of both. He was a utility man-caliber prospect with poor numbers in the minors when they acquired him from Chicago.

Given his underwhelming pre-2014 track record and poor strike zone control there's still reason enough to not fully buy into Escobar as one of the league's top shortstops, but at the very least he's earned the right to finally be handed a clear path to the starting job. In back-to-back years he's shown the ability to hit .260 with double-digit homers, tons of doubles, and solid defense, which is saying a lot compared to the Twins' weak history and current alternatives at shortstop.

Eduardo Escobar is an above-average starting shortstop. It's time the Twins treated him like one.


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  • cpa_guy

    “it’s possible that they simply never expected Escobar to be this good and perhaps remain skeptical. I’ll definitely admit to being guilty of both. He was a utility man-caliber prospect with poor numbers in the minors when they acquired him from Chicago.”

    Saying that you have been skeptical is an understatement. When discussing replacement level players, Escobar’s name is usually the first that you throw out, and I know I’ve heard you do so in just the last three weeks. Sure he had bad numbers in the minors, he was consistently 3-5 years younger than level. To say that he was a utility man caliber prospect isn’t fair. Albeit in a weak system, Baseball America ranked Escobar as the White Sox’s 5th ranked prospect at the end of the 2010 season. They wouldn’t have rated him that high if they didn’t think he had a decent enough glove and serviceable bat to compete in the majors.

    • Kavan

      A dude can’t change his stance after taking into consideration new data? If someone isn’t spot on from the very beginning, they can’t have an informed opinion later on? He admitted to being skeptical and is less so now that there is more to work with. There were few people sticking up for Escobar and his .628 OPS in 2013, tough to blame Gleeman for interpreting that plus his underwhelming minor league record as skepticism of the future.

    • When discussing replacement level players, Escobar’s name is
      usually the first that you throw out, and I know I’ve heard you do so
      in just the last three weeks.

      I’ve been campaigning for Escobar to be the everyday shortstop for at least the past two months.

      To say that he was a utility man caliber prospect isn’t fair. Albeit in a
      weak system, Baseball America ranked Escobar as the White Sox’s 5th
      ranked prospect at the end of the 2010 season.

      And then one year later BA ranked him 10th in another weak farm system. 10th-rated prospects in weak farm systems are, as I wrote, utility
      man-caliber prospects.

  • Shakes

    I agree. Looks like my previous post was removed. I was just kidding…

  • Uh, What?

    Aaron – try not to confuse the Twins front office with logic and statistics… they don’t seem to like it…

    Keep up the good work.

  • McGivey87

    Kudos to you Aaron for pointing out your own skepticism in this article. Very few bloggers/journalists/reporters would admit something like that in a piece like this.

  • by_jiminy

    They clearly thought Santana had more upside and wanted to give him a real chance to develop. I’m not categorically against giving a rookie three months of continuous play rather than giving him a short leash. But that logic only makes sense if you’re a terrible team in a rebuilding year. Then, yeah, you have the luxury of prioritizing player development over trying to win now. That makes sense, long term, and gives the fans something exciting to watch and dream about during the hard times.

    But when the winning started, and they became surprising contenders, that rationale goes out the window. The second it became clear the Twins had an actual shot at the playoffs, Santana should have been yanked. Even if you still believe in his potential, if he’s overmatched in the majors, send to AAA to develop. That’s what it’s for.

    I can’t help but wonder if the incredibly long leash they gave Santana could cost them a spot in the playoffs. It really could. They’re 1.5 out now, and the numbers say, Santana cost them 2.1 games. It’s really hard to understand why a team in a playoff race would give 263 plate appearances to a guy with an OPS of .541 and a -1.1 dWAR. Even if you think Escobar is only replacement level, that’s still 2.1 games above Santana.

    Again, it’s more than defensible to think the Twins were an extreme long shot to be in a playoff race this year, and to see Santana as having more upside than Escobar is not nuts.

    And you have to remember, Escobar’s early season stats were almost as
    bad as Santana’s. This was not Bartlett vs. Castro. This was two similar
    nonentities. Escobar didn’t really blossom until given the starting
    job. Before then, he hadn’t shown much either.

    But they still waited a bizarrely long time to pull the plug. One possible reason is they felt like they owed Santana, after playing him out of position last year. And they also may have found it hard to change course once they had so publicly and emphatically committed to giving him the starting job this year. If either of these was a factor, though, they were mistakes. Don’t box yourself in with public statements–keep your options open. And don’t prioritize being nice to a player over the welfare of the team–at least not if you’re in contention. If you’re out of it, sure, trade a veteran to a contender to help him out. Build the confidence of a youngster. Those types of things are noticed, and may help you in the future. But not in a pennant race!

    Mind you, I don’t think it was a mistake to prioritize 2016 over 2015 at the beginning of this year. If you think your 2016 team will contain major contributions from Sano and Buxton and maybe May, Meyer and/or Berrios, it makes sense to use 2015 to find out what you have in Arcia, Vargas, Hicks, Santana, and Rosario. You don’t want to waste hundreds of unproductive at bats on untested rookies in 2016 if you can do that now, so by the time you’re good, you’ve sorted the wheat from the chaff.

    But when the Twins burst through ahead of schedule, why keep hanging Santana out to dry, day after day? Who benefits from that? It wasn’t even good for Santana.

    As Aaron said, it’s been clear for two months he was not their best option at short. Most would probably rank him after both Escobar and Polanco, as right now options.

    I respect sticking to the plan. I understand looking at the secondary numbers and thinking their record is a fluke and they’ll probably crash back to Earth. I thought that myself.

    But if you’ve got a chance, you’ve got to go for it, right? Especially if you know you have Sano, Buxton, and maybe Arcia, Pinto, Vargas, Tonkin, Duffey, Berrios, Meyer, etc. as late season reinforcements. Yeah, you may be playing over your head. But if you can hang around until you actually are good, shouldn’t you go for it?

    Not to the point of trading assets–I have no problem with them not trading the future for the present, this year. Their minor league assets had almost as good a chance of improving the team as overpriced veterans, and don’t sacrifice their future.

    It would be a shame if sticking with Santana too long cost them the playoffs. But they’re not dumb. They saw everything we saw. So I would have to assume, as Aaron pointed out, that they just don’t think Escobar is that good. And there’s a very real chance they’re right. This might be a blip, the way Santana’s 2014 was a blip.

    I really hope Escobar has moved up a plateau, permanently, and turns out to be the solid shortstop we’ve been waiting for so long. But we’ve seen this too many times before to get too excited.

    Of course, even if it’s only temporary, you ride the wave as long as you can, until proven otherwise. But let’s not get carried away.

    In 201 ABs before the all-star break, Escobar’s OPS was .688.

    In 112 ABs after the all-star break, it was .866.

    Are you willing to bet that those 112 at bats mean more than the rest of his career put together?

    Of course, .688 is still better than Santana’s OPS this year. And his .721 OPS last year is further evidence he’s not a complete mirage. And people do improve. Clearly, he’s the guy who should be starting now, and continue starting until proven otherwise. I’m just saying, .866 is probably not his new baseline OPS. Say he stabilizes at .721 though — still not a sure thing, but not an unrealistic hope. If only three Twins shortstops have ever had an OPS over .750, that’s plenty good for me.

  • Travis Andersen, ccp

    Hopefully you wont get a flat tire as you would probably total the car this time