It wasn’t too long ago that being a top American League shortstop meant you were probably named Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, or Nomar Garciaparra. But now that Jeter is in a steep decline, Rodriguez is playing third base, and Garciaparra is retired, being an elite AL shortstop has more or less lost its zeal. That said, 28 year-old Yunel Escobar of the Toronto Blue Jays has quietly emerged as the preeminent shortstop the AL has to offer.
Yunel Escobar didn’t exactly appear out of thin air, as he was formerly a top prospect in the Atlanta Braves system. The shortstop showcased his diverse abilities in 2009, by posting a .299/.377/.436 line with 14 homeruns, 76 RBI, 89 runs, 5 stolen bases and a 1.7 UZR/150. Despite improving both offensively and defensively from 2007 to 2009, he still always found himself in Braves manager Bobby Cox’s doghouse. Given his rocky standing with the Braves, Escobar was unsurprisingly dealt in 2010 with Jo-Jo Reyes to the Blue Jays for Alex Gonzalez, Tim Collins, and Tyler Pastornicky.
The change of scenery instantly did wonders for the maligned infielder. After posting a subpar .238/.334/.284 line in his first 301 plate appearances for the Braves in 2010 (pre-trade), Escobar owned a .275/.340/.356 the rest of the way in Toronto–not to mention a career best 4.2 UZR/150. But it’s really been his 2011 where it’s come all together.
To-date, Escobar has hit to the tune of a .296/.376/.425 line with 10 homeruns, 41 RBI, 68 runs, 3 stolen bases, while exhibiting a 3.6 UZR/150 in the field. In addition, the shortstop has showed the most patience of his career. Escobar has swung at just 19.4% of pitches outsize the zone, while only sporting a 4.5% wiff rate (top 20 in the Major Leagues). His prime 87.9% contact rate perfectly illustrates his rare ability to get some wood on the ball.
As steadily good as Escobar has been at shortstop, he does have some competition as “the best” among his peers. Guys like Alexei Ramirez, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Elvis Andrus might have something to say about Yunel being crowned the American League’s finest shortstop. But while Alexei Ramirez might be the best fielder (13.6 UZR/150), Asdrubal Cabrera and J.J. Hardy might have the most pop (20 and 23 homeruns, respectively), and Elvis Andrus might be the quickest (31 stolen bases), Yunel Escobar is undoubtedly the complete package.