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Should the Athletics worry about Yunel Escobar's defense?

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Yunel Escobar had what can charitably be described as a bad defensive 2014 at shortstop for the Tampa Bay Rays. Will he continue to play as poorly?

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In 2014, by the two main sabermetric statistics for defense, Defensive Runs Saved, and Ultimate Zone Rating, Yunel Escobar turned in one of the most below average defensive seasons at shortstop (min. 900 innings) since 2003, at 26 runs below average per 150 defensive games. In 2014, at age 31, Yunel Escobar turned in the worst qualifying shortstop season of UZR/150 since they started keeping track of UZR.

Yunel the worst

Besides Yunel Escobar, that top-ten list is all players that were either below-average defensive shortstops or they were a young player that only later turned into an above average shortstop (Stephen Drew).

In 2013, however, Escobar was a finalist for a Gold Glove, with a UZR/150 of 12.2, though only four Defensive Runs Saved. Before that, he profiled mainly as an average to above average shortstop, though keep in mind that an MLB-average shortstop is a very, very good fielder. His career DRS and UZR statistics at shortstop:

Year Team SS Inn Defensive Runs Saved Ultimate Zone Rating Def
rGDP rGFP rPM DRS DPR RngR ErrR UZR UZR/150
2007 ATL 363.0 1 0 0 1 0.4 -0.5 0.6 0.4 1.7 2.3
2008 ATL 1105.2 -3 -4 15 8 -3.7 7.5 -0.7 3.1 3.5 8.8
2009 ATL 1208.2 -1 -5 13 7 -0.8 0.3 2.0 1.5 1.6 7.8
2010 ATL/TOR 1179.1 3 -1 7 9 1.9 2.6 -0.4 4.1 4.0 10.2
2011 TOR 1121.0 0 -1 8 7 -0.7 -0.3 1.4 0.5 0.6 6.2
2012 TOR 1250.2 -1 -2 17 14 -2.1 3.0 3.7 4.6 5.0 11.0
2013 TBR 1320.0 0 -1 5 4 -0.1 5.1 5.6 10.7 12.2 17.5
2014 TBR 1183.1 -3 -4 -17 -24 -1.6 -12.2 -3.2 -17.0 -26.0 -11.0

So what do we make of all these numbers for next year? Steamer projects a "Def" of 2.7, where Def is UZR + positional adjustment. The positional adjustment appears to be around six runs, so we can guess that Escobar is projected by Steamer to have around a -3 UZR. A below average season at shortstop, but not catastrophically bad.

But wait, even an average player having an unlucky year should not be having the worst defensive season since they started keeping track of advanced fielding statistics. Should he?

Anecdotes

I tried to look for examples of veteran players who had been average or better defenders before suddenly having very bad defensive seasons at shortstop, as measured by UZR/150. There are a few flaws in this method. First, survivor bias would cause players that had suddenly become bad at fielding to simply not play shortstop anymore, but move to a different position like second base. On the other hand, the survivors may simply be those that were evaluated to have simply had a hard luck year and could still play a competent shortstop.

In bringing up these players, I only mean to suggest that it is possible for someone to have one bad year at shortstop but come back fine defensively the next year. I don't have a suggestion on how likely that is and I would guess that most shortstops who are becoming atrocious shortstops just don't play shortstop anymore.

Alcides Escobar's 2012

Alcides Escobar was somewhere between average and very good at shortstop after his first few seasons in the big leagues before a poor 2012 according to UZR:

Alcides Escobar Defensive Runs Saved Ultimate Zone Rating Def
Season Team Inn rGDP rGFP rPM DRS DPR RngR ErrR UZR UZR/150
2008 MIL 2.0 0 0 0 0 0.0
2009 MIL 300.0 -1 -1 0 -2 0.0 0.5 -1.9 -1.4 -6.2 0.1
2010 MIL 1151.1 1 0 5 6 0.4 4.6 -1.9 3.2 3.9 9.1
2011 KCR 1387.1 -3 2 11 10 -2.3 8.1 3.9 9.6 9.3 16.8
2012 KCR 1379.2 0 1 -3 -2 0.1 -11.3 -2.3 -13.5 -14.0 -6.4
2013 KCR 1388.1 1 -1 4 4 0.9 8.3 1.6 10.9 12.1 18.0
2014 KCR 1433.2 -1 1 -4 -4 -2.2 2.4 1.4 1.6 1.3 9.0

That 2012 was just his age-25 season, and he roared back in 2013 to join Yunel Escobar on the finalist list for the American League Gold Glove at shortstop.

Jason Bartlett's 2010

Jason Bartlett broke out early as a good defensive shortstop before beginning what appears to the naked eye to be a steady decline all the way to 2010, his age-30 season in Tampa:

Jason Bartlett Defensive Runs Saved Ultimate Zone Rating Def
Season Team Inn rGDP rGFP rPM DRS DPR RngR ErrR UZR UZR/150
2004 MIN 22.0 0 0 1 1 0.3 0.8 -1.2 -0.2 -15.3 -0.1
2005 MIN 585.2 2 0 11 13 0.7 10.4 1.5 12.6 26.3 15.6
2006 MIN 879.2 -3 0 10 7 -3.8 15.7 -0.3 11.6 17.7 16.1
2007 MIN 1194.0 1 0 14 15 -0.3 13.8 -4.8 8.7 9.4 14.8
2008 TBR 1097.0 -1 1 -1 -1 0.1 3.3 -1.5 1.9 2.7 7.6
2009 TBR 1153.2 -4 1 8 5 -4.2 1.8 -3.0 -5.4 -6.7 0.5
2010 TBR 1104.0 -3 0 2 -1 -3.1 -9.0 1.9 -10.2 -13.5 -4.5
2011 SDP 1211.0 0 -1 -8 -9 -1.0 -1.0 2.0 -0.1 -0.1 6.2
2012 SDP 233.2 1 -2 -2 -3 0.3 0.1 -1.4 -1.0 -4.6 0.2

Yet the season afterward, in San Diego, he was nearly the definition of an average shortstop. He's a little bit different from Yunel Escobar in that Escobar has always been rated as an average or better shortstop until his bad defensive year. Jason Bartlett hardly played since suffering a right knee strain in 2012, and retired after playing three games with the Minnesota Twins in 2014.

Miguel Tejada's 2009

I hesitated to even include Tejada, because Miggy's 2009 in Houston for his age-35 season came after several years where he vacillated between a slightly below average to a slightly above average shortstop:

Miguel Tejada Defensive Runs Saved Ultimate Zone Rating Def
Season Team Inn rGDP rGFP rPM DRS DPR RngR ErrR UZR UZR/150
2003 OAK 1417.2 -1 0 -3 -4 -2.2 -11.6 3.1 -10.6 -9.4 -3.3
2004 BAL 1421.2 -2 -4 11 5 0.2 4.8 -0.2 4.9 4.3 12.2
2005 BAL 1394.2 -1 1 4 4 -0.1 -2.3 -1.9 -4.2 -4.0 3.0
2006 BAL 1293.2 1 -1 -11 -11 0.7 -0.9 2.6 2.5 2.5 9.1
2007 BAL 1068.2 -2 -1 -3 -6 -2.8 -2.6 1.4 -4.0 -4.3 1.5
2008 HOU 1354.1 2 -1 5 6 2.5 3.8 3.6 9.9 10.0 16.9
2009 HOU 1371.1 0 1 -16 -15 0.9 -11.3 -2.1 -12.5 -11.3 -5.5
2010 SDP 496.2 -1 -1 0 -2 -0.1 -3.3 3.0 -0.4 -0.9 2.2
2011 SFG 334.1 0 -1 -4 -5 -0.2 -0.6 -2.1 -2.9 -11.0 -1.1

After that year, Miggy signed with the Baltimore Orioles, where he exclusively played third base. He was traded mid-season to the San Diego Padres, where he mostly played as an average to below-average shortstop. He couldn't keep that up in 2011, moving all around the diamond, including turns as a poor shortstop. He never played shortstop at the major league level after that year.

Orlando Cabrera's 2009

The 2001 and 2007 Gold Glove winner at shortstop had a pretty bad 2009 defensively, his age-34 season with the Oakland A's and Minnesota Twins:

Orlando Cabrera Defensive Runs Saved Ultimate Zone Rating Def
Season Team Inn rGDP rGFP rPM DRS DPR RngR ErrR UZR UZR/150
2003 MON 1385.2 -1 0 4 3 -0.5 -0.3 2.2 1.3 1.3 8.4
2004 - - - 1358.2 -2 -1 10 7 -1.7 -7.7 4.1 -5.3 -5.3 1.7
2005 LAA 1240.2 0 1 5 6 -0.3 13.9 6.0 19.6 24.1 26.0
2006 LAA 1320.2 1 -2 -9 -10 0.2 -3.9 1.4 -2.2 -2.7 4.6
2007 LAA 1330.2 3 0 2 5 0.6 7.7 4.4 12.6 13.6 19.4
2008 CHW 1389.2 2 -1 1 2 0.5 10.4 4.0 14.9 13.8 22.1
2009 - - - 1388.2 -1 2 -30 -29 -1.6 -10.7 -0.8 -13.0 -11.7 -5.9
2010 CIN 1030.2 0 -1 1 0 1.0 -2.1 3.1 1.9 2.8 7.2
2011 - - - 309.1 0 1 2 3 -1.3 0.1 0.3 -0.8 -3.2 0.8

He bounced back to an average 2010 campaign defensively. In 2011, he started the year with the Cleveland Indians, who mostly played him at second base, before being traded to the San Francisco Giants, who played him at shortstop. He retired after the 2011 season.

Yunel Escobar will be fine, probably

These anecdotes seem to comport with the rule of thumb that one season's worth of extreme performance in either direction should be regressed halfway toward the mean of zero, absent other data. With more data, such as previous seasons of average or better performance, you could even call an entire extreme season a mere aberration and expect a return to previous performance, with some decline allowed for a regular aging curve.

Here, we have one young player who seems to have just had a down year defensively (Alcides Escobar), one player who had an injury sent him to retirement a few years later (Bartlett), one player whose declining bat and drug violations ended his career (Tejada), and one player who retired after his bat let him down (Cabrera).

I would be more troubled by Yunel Escobar's poor defensive season if Escobar had never been an above average fielder. It seems, however, that for these players that had a significantly out of character defensive season, they regressed back toward where these players were playing before. And I think that's what we can expect from Escobar, a regression back towards being an average shortstop, settling in somewhere between average and just below average.

All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.