For most of 2011, the Royals and their fans figured they had one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball in Alcides Escobar.
They also figured they had a light-hitting shortstop, a fact they were willing to live with.
As it turns out, the Royals and their fans won’t have to live with the latter anymore.
Escobar, 26, has emerged as an offensive weapon, so much so that skipper Ned Yost has implanted Escobar in the No. 2 spot in the order, where he may have found a home for years to come.
“I don’t think there’s a better shortstop around,” teammate Eric Hosmer said. “Defensively he’s the best shortstop. I have no doubt about that. He’s got the best arm and the best range. And now he’s doing things offensively we kind of knew he could do.”
Escobar hit just .254 last year in his first season with the Royals and, at times, he looked worse offensively than the numbers suggested. For much of the first half in 2011, Escobar had trouble hitting the ball out of the infield. He seemed overmatched.
Escobar has arrived offensively, now hitting. 309 and already matching a career high with 21 doubles and four homers.
It’s all a far cry from 2011 when Royals fans and talk-show hosts were repeatedly angered when Yost refused to pinch-hit for Escobar in crucial situations, even though Escobar failed time and time again.
“He’s got to learn,” Yost said often in 2011. “Someday he’s going to be expected to produce in those situations and he’s never going to if he doesn’t get exposed to it and learn.”
That some day is now.
“I give (Yost) all the credit for sticking with me during those times,” Escobar said. “I got to learn a lot. I feel more confident now. But that wouldn’t have happened if not for (Yost).”
Escobar also credits hitting coach Kevin Seitzer for the massive turnaround.
“We work very hard, every day,” Escobar said.
Seitzer said a few mechanical flaws were the culprits.
“I think the big adjustment he worked with was the loop he had in his swing last year,” Seitzer said. “We’ve done a lot of drills to get him to come down and through the ball.
“When he has gotten too big with this swing, that’s when he gets pull happy and then some bad things happen. But when he stays to the middle of the field, he’s got such good hands he can be that .300 hitter, though I don’t like to label guys.
“And sometimes when he goes to load up, he’ll crouch, and that makes him more uphill. We’ve tried to keep him taller at the plate and that keeps him more level.”
Seitzer practically beams when he discusses Escobar’s progress at the plate.
“He’s been great,” Seitzer said. “I don’t know what his ceiling is. I thought last year he could hit .280 or .290. He’s proving me wrong. He doesn’t have a ceiling right now. He can go as high offensively as he wants.”
Escobar himself isn’t setting any limitations. But he’s certain that his lofty average this season is no accident.
“I think I am a .300 hitter,” he said. “I hit .300 before in the minor leagues. I know I can do that when I get enough at bats. Last year was my first year in the American League and I learned a lot.”
Escobar also should project to be a player who steals 25-30 bases. Maybe he even turns into a 15-20 homer guy. He has a solid build and is strong in his upper body, much more than fans may see on television.
“I’m not looking for home runs,” he said. “I’m looking for base hits. I’m not a 20-homer guy I don’t think. I could hit 10 homers, maybe 15. But I’m looking for hits not home runs.”
Escobar has settled in comfortably as the team’s No. 2 hitter, though he knows he still has work to do. He has drawn only 15 walks over 327 at bats, not acceptable for a table setter.
“I will get better at that,” he said. “But I like to hit second. I’m in front of Hosmer and Billy Butler and I see a lot of good pitches. I hit a lot of fastballs. The rest will come.”
And actually, it’s all happening quickly for Escobar, who has Hosmer suggested, might just be the best overall shortstop around.
Escobar, though, remains humble at that notion.
“I’m playing good but you have (Asdrubal) Cabrera and Elvis Andrus and (Yunel) Escobar,” he said. “They can hit and play. You have Derek Jeter, a Hall of Famer. There are a lot of good players at shortstop.