clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is Yunel Escobar worth his contract?

The Athletics seem to think so. Do the Rays?

Brian Kersey

As you surely know by now, the Rays put Yunel Escobar on revocable waivers (teams do this with pretty much all of their players), and the Athletics claimed him. They now have till 1:00 PM tomorrow to work out a deal. The Rays can arrange a trade, simply let the Athletics have him, or pull him back off waivers.

Yesterday, Danny looked at how the Rays might replace Escobar in the future, and that certainly plays into this decision by affecting his value to the team (there are possible replacements, but no sure things), but I'm going to look purely at his value without context, as there seems to be significant anti-Escobar feelings in the Rays fanbase right now, and it's leading to hyperbole.

The Contract

Escobar is signed for the next two years. He will be paid $5 million in 2015, and $7 million in 2016. He has a $7 million team option for 2017 with a $1 buyout. This is not a very difficult contract to fulfill. One win above replacement level is worth around $6-7 million, so essentially, he needs to only be one win better than your basic triple-A fringe-prospect shortstop to be worth the money he'll be paid at a market rate. Last year, by the FanGraphs version of the metric, he was worth about four wins better than replacement, which is equivalent to a fringe all-star. When he's making $5M, that's a fantastic deal.

This season, however, he's been much worse. Yunel has essentially performed at exactly replacement level. That means that he has not been worth his contract, and theoretically, the Rays would be better off without him.

The important question, then, is how we, the Rays front office, and the Athletics front office think he'll perform next year and in the two years after that.

Escobar's Bad Year


What exactly has gone wrong this season for Escobar? That's easy. His power has disappeared. His walk rates and strikeout rates are normal, and while his batting average on balls in play hasn't been terrible, his isolated power is a career-worst .066. That's awful.

If you take a look at the pitch-type linear weights available at FanGraphs, you see that Escobar -- who has always been an average fastball hitter -- has become over a full run below average per hundred fastballs. He's also struggled to an unusual degree against changeups.

I've used Jeff Zimmerman's excellent tool to compare his approach and results between this season and last. First up is Escobar's plate coverage graphs. A cool color means he's swinging less often in 2014 than he did in 2013, and a hot color that he's swinging more often.

Against righties:



Against lefties:



As you can see, Escobar is attacking fastballs on the outer third of the plate, and taking them on the inner third. This is an approach that reduces power, as inside, pulled pitches, is where most power gets generated.

Now let's take a look at fastball results overall:



Well, that's ugly. He's hitting dramatically worse right over the heart of the plate. My reading of these graphs is that Escobar has been much less aggressive with his swing, trying to shoot it the other way, and the numbers show that to some extent:

2013 2014
Pull 26% 30%
Middle 34% 29%
Opposite 17% 21%

If this is his approach, he should stop, and he'll be a good bet to become an average hitter once more. If this is age catching up with him in a hurry, then the 100 wRC+ shortstop we loved so much last season might not be coming back.


The bigger question with Yunel Escobar right now is his defense. Over the course of his career, he's been an average defensive shortstop, which is to say, he's been an amazing defender (average shortstop defense is a joy to watch). Last season, he was great. He was amazingly sure-handed and very rangy, which amounted to a full ten runs above average.

So far this year, though, he's been much worse, particularly according to UZR. He's made errors, and he's had poor range. That's come out to over 13 runs below average, by far the worst mark of his career.

Once more, the question has to be about whether or not there's been a precipitous drop-off in true talent. If he's not injured, and hasn't spontaneously become geriatric, then we should just say "We can't trust a single year of UZR," mentally regress a bit, and not worry to much because Escobar is almost surely still an average defensive shortstop (i.e. a great defender). If, however, you maintain that this is Escobar's true talent, then you must believe that he's fallen off the deep end of the aging curve and his career is over. Do you?


This argument is not one I would normally acknowledge, but it seems to have stuck with Escobar -- so briefly, here it goes: Some people claim that Yunel is lazy and a clubhouse cancer, and that (of course) he sucks now that he has an extended contract.

That's an easy narrative. The same body language that appears lazy when the player fails, is relaxed when the player succeeds. Kevin Kiermaier has great hustle when he makes the catch, but he's brash and maybe even selfish when he misses and it bounces to the wall for a triple. In either case, no one making these pronouncements knows anything about how these players go about their business other than what we all see on the field, so I'll go with Joe Maddon -- who seems to like Escobar just fine -- and with James Loney who said, when asked by a bunch of middle-schoolers, that Escobar was his favorite clubhouse teammate.


Whether or not you think Yunel Escobar is worth his 1 WAR/year contract comes down to how you attribute his down year. The wide-angle view, which is more-often-than-not correct, still thinks he's a good bet to provide value. The daring prediction -- which is, by its very nature, often wrong -- is that we've just seen the beginning of a steep decline.

If this trade gets done, or if it doesn't but we get to hear the details of what was offered and rejected, we'll know where Andrew Friedman and Billy Beane stand.

In the mean time, Escobar is starting at short stop this evening, batting seventh for the Tampa Bay Rays. Oh, and Ben Zobrist is playing center field. What do we know, anyway?

Edit: The Rays have pulled Yunel Escobar back off waivers. They're keeping him. They had an opportunity to dump his salary and maybe even get something back for him, and to try to spend it more wisely next season, but they decided that no, the wise move is to pay Yunel what he's owed next year, and potentially the year after that. That's because they make it a point of not overreacting to failure of their guys. It's their strength or their flaw, depending on your point of view.