The Twins Savior

The Twins were one of the most active teams this offseason. General Manager Derrick Falvey brilliantly waited until the around Spring Training to capitalize on players that were expecting far more lucrative deals. Then bargains, the Twins waited until March to sign Logan Morrisson and Lance Lynn to one-year pacts for a combined 18 million. Either via trade or free agency, the Twins were able to acquire Zach Duke, Addison Reed, Fernando Rodney, and Jake Odorizzi. All in all, the front office addressed virtually every area of need for a team that had improbably snuck into the Wild Card game just a year ago.

The beaming optimism that permeated Twins nation quickly evaporated in the early weeks of the season as Morrisson struggled to hit above the Mendoza line and produced now power at the plate and Lance Lynn got lit up like a Christmas tree seemingly every time he took the bump. Of the other free agent relievers, Duke has fared the best in the early going with a 3.13 ERA through thirty games, but outside of his solid showing, the Twins signees have been nothing but busts.

While the clubs lackluster free-agent signees struggled to adapt to Minneapolis was concerning for the Twins, the club has had much more pressing issues in the early going. Jorge Polanco, who posted a wRC+ of 123 in the second half of 2017, was suspended for 80 games prior to the season for taking PEDs. Miguel Sano, mired in domestic violence controversy and noticeably overweight, has been injured most of the season and has not performed when healthy. Lastly, Byron Buxton, who showed every sign of becoming a bonafide superstar in the second half of last season, has battled nagging injuries and has looked like his highly strikeout prone self when healthy.

If you have read the first three paragraphs, it would be fair to assume that the Twins would be in the cellar given all the misfortune and poor performances that have befallen their club. This would probably be true if not for one man: Eduardo Escobar.

Prior to the start of the season, Escobar was expected to open the season as a utility infielder, slotting in at 2B, SS, and 3B when needed. Originally acquired in a deal that sent former Twins ace Johan Santana to the Chicago White Sox, Escobar was considered a versatile infielder, with limited upside with the bat. In fact, in the six years that he spent in the White Sox organization, Escobar popped just 19 home runs.

Escobar’s power output was similar in his first three years in Minnesota as well, averaging just 6.75 home runs per year through the 2016 season. Escobar made some significant changes to his swing in the offseason and came back a much more powerful hitter, evidenced by his career high 21 home runs. This adjustment has carried on into 2018 as Escobar not only has hit 12 home runs in just 61 games, but he is also the MLB leader in extra-base hits. While it is easy to accredit a greater emphasis on launch angle every time we see a player’s power spike, but in Escobar’s case, his reinvention is multi-faceted.

It is easy to look at first half numbers are overreact. This recency bias is especially pronounced in baseball when a few good months can put the likes of Dominic Brown and Brock Holt on the All-Star team. This is why we must delve into the advanced statistics to get a better estimate of whether a player is a breakout star or just enjoying a streak of good fortune. In the case of Eduardo Escobar, it is the latter.

Taking a look at Escobar’s batted ball data, we find that he has unquestionably joined the launch angle revolution. Look at how his GB% and FB% have been trending in the last three seasons:

GB% FB% Launch Angle
2016 39.1% 37.4% 15.0°
2017 33.7% 45.3% 17.6°
2018 27.3% 47.0% 19.9°

As the league has adjusted to put more balls in the air, Escobar has adapted his game to fit this new home run happy revolution. These types of adjustments are commonplace across the league, but Escobar is coupling his new swing path with positive changes in his approach as well.

Like most major league hitters, Escobar has always had the ability to mash a fastball. Also similar to most MLB hitters, breaking balls give him nightmares. To illustrate just how pronounced Escobar’s struggles were against breaking balls, consider the following table:

Eduardo Escobar vs. Fastballs compared to Breaking Balls (2015-2017)

Breaking Balls .279 .469
Fastballs .379 (11th in MLB) .672 (10th in MLB)

Over the past few seasons, Escobar realized his weakness against breaking pitches and adjusted. Rather than working on learning how to hit breaking balls, he committed himself to laying off them altogether and focus his attention on smashing any fastball that comes his way.

This adjustment has taken a few years to fully materialize, but one glance at the following table illustrates Escobar’s steady increase in discipline on breaking balls.

Eduardo Escobar versus Breaking Balls (2016 – 2018)

Swing % v/ Breaking Balls SwStr% v/ Breaking Balls wOBA vs. Breaking Balls
2016 21.5% 7.2% .199
2017 13.4% 7.0% .314
2018 12.3% 6.7% .360

This table shows that Escobar was aware that pitchers would attack his weakness of not being able to hit breaking balls. As evidenced by his declining swing percentage on such pitches, Escobar chose to simply lay off these offerings instead of swing off balanced and make weak contact. The inverse correlation between Swing % and wOBA vs. breaking balls is pretty evident here, and intuitively this makes sense. While a pitcher with good command of their curveball or slider will at times use the pitch as a get-me-over offering, breaking balls are generally employed as strikeout pitches out of the zone. By not chasing these types of pitches, Escobar sets himself up to receive more fastballs, a pitch that he absolutely mashes.

With much-improved plate discipline against breaking balls, it is no wonder that Escobar has hit 28 of his 40 extra base hits (2nd in the AL) off heaters. The old baseball adage of “waiting for your pitch” has been repeated so incessantly it has become a worn out baseball cliche, but for Escobar, this simple idea has transformed him into one of the best offensive infielders in the game.

Across the league, pitching staffs are abandoning the old-fashioned “get ahead with the fastball and throw your breaking ball ahead in the count” philosophy that has been widely accepted for the entire duration of baseball history. A few years back, front offices realized that breaking pitches are simply just harder to hit and they soon relayed this information to their pitchers and coaches alike. The percentage of breaking balls grows every season and a hitters ability to lay off them is a skill that is growing in importance.

A decade ago, pitchers threw roughly 34.2% breaking balls. That number has skyrocketed to 38.8% today. You may be thinking that a 4.4% difference is not all that drastic of a difference, but when we consider the league-wide batting stats against breaking balls in relation to the offensive numbers against fastballs, it becomes evident that being able to hit, or better yet, lay off breaking balls is an important skill in today’s game.

Eduardo Escobar has gone from a utility infielder that could provide some pop off the bench to a legitimate All-Star candidate in less than a year and his continued willingness to adjust both his swing and approach at the plate are a large reason why. The Twins may be off to a rocky start due to some unfortunate injuries, disappointing performances from free agents, and underperforming youngsters, but Eduardo Escobar is playing the best baseball of his career right now while keeping the Twins in the playoff hunt in the process.


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