Blue Jays' Escobar dazzling with the glove
Toronto's Yunel Escobar scored three runs and cracked four singles against Minnesota in Thursday night's win, but it's not his bat that's worth watching. Rather, it is his hands and his glove as one of the game's pre-eminent shortstops continues to improve.
It was a heady night for Escobar and the Blue Jays, who continue to stand ahead of both the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East.
But it is neither with his bat nor his feet that Escobar is drawing raves this season.
Rather, it's with his hands and his glove.
Among major-league shortstops, Escobar, 29, currently ranks third according to Fangraphs' Ultimate Zone Ratings index, with only Seattle's Brendan Ryan and Houston's Jed Lowrie ahead of him.
"Yunel Escobar has been very, very good for us," says Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who acquired Escobar from the Braves in 2010 and took some knocks for it, given the shortstop's then-repuation as something of a malcontent. "His hands are unbelievable, and his range."
The Blue Jays' airtight, vapor-lock infield has helped boost a very good young rotation toward the top of the charts. Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Henderson Alvarez, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison have combined for a 3.40 ERA, second-best in the American League to the Angels' 3.34.
No small part of that is an infield defense that includes sure-fielders Adam Lind at first base, Kelly Johnson at second, Brett Lawrie at third and Escobar at shortstop. As colleague Al Melchior notes in this week's Beyond the Numbers column, the Jays through five weeks have compiled a stunning batting average against ground balls put in play. Opponents are batting a major league-worst .156 against the Jays when they hit ground balls. The Dodgers are second, holding opponents to a .189 average on ground balls. The major-league average is .226.
Though Anthopoulos tends to dismiss this trend as a small-sample size, and as Melchior, a crack Data Analyst, writes, going back to 2003, no team has ever defended ground balls by holding opponents to less than a .200 batting average, Escobar's continued steady hand is one big reason why these Jays are perched on the launching pad with a world of possibilities.
"He's the captain of the infield," Anthopoulos says. "And he's got one of the best throwing arms in the game. His hands are as good as there is. Scouts will tell you that, and metrics will tell you that.
"I think he's gotten a lot better. He will be a candidate for a Gold Glove. I really think he's become elite."