KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s no secret that just about every Royals hitter is having a down year.
And without doubt, one of the most dramatic drop-offs has come from shortstop Alcides Escobar, who raised eyebrows around the league last season with a .293 average, .331 on-base percentage, 30 doubles and 35 stolen bases.
Already one of the most gifted defensive shortstops in the game, Escobar showed he could be the all-around player the Royals dreamed of when they acquired him as part of the Zack Greinke trade with Milwaukee before the 2011 season.
And this year, Escobar picked up where he left off. He hit .286 in April with three homers and six doubles. As late as May 5, he was hitting .295.
Then, coinciding with the team’s May swoon, Escobar dipped into a massive slump that he has yet to crawl out of. His average has plummeted all the way to .238 and his on-base percentage is an unsightly .265. He hasn’t homered since April 28.
In short, Escobar has become the bare minimum of what the Royals expected when they acquired him — a slick defensive shortstop but a major liability at the plate.
Now it’s batting coach Pedro Grifol’s job to turn Escobar’s career around, again, as former hitting coach Kevin Seitzer seemed to do last season.
“He can be anything he wants to be in this game offensively,” Grifol says of Escobar. “He has the ability. He can do a lot of things. He can hit .290. He can hit for some power. We’ve seen that.
“It’s just a matter of getting him back to where he was.”
How does Grifol do that? Starting with plate discipline, he says, something Escobar has struggled with his whole career.
Escobar never has shown the patience to take walks — he walked just 27 times last year in 648 plate appearances.
But that type of impatience and reckless swinging is easily exploited by pitchers, and as Grifol points out, Escobar too often gets himself out rather than making the pitcher work to get him out.
“I didn’t see him last year, but I have seen him in winter ball for two years,” Grifol says. “For him, the mechanics are the same. He hasn’t changed that way. His swing is the same.
“It’s really simple with him: When he expands the strike zone, he’s in trouble. When he shrinks the strike zone, he’s the hitter you saw last year. It’s all about the plan we have for him each day.
“It’s about him understanding that he’s a talented major league hitter who can hit with two strikes. When he sees pitches, he’s a better hitter. The more pitches, the better he gets.”
It’s all easier said than done. Escobar hears the words, but when he gets to the plate he often falls back into old habits.
“I’m not disappointed,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “Baseball is not easy. You have good moments and bad moments.
“I’m the same guy as last year. I just keep working hard with Pedro (Grifol) and try not to think I’m hitting .240 or whatever. I want to finish strong. It’s a hard game.”
Are pitchers pitching him different this season?
“Maybe,” Escobar says. “I’m not sure about that.”
Grifol believes the main issue with Escobar’s approach is his fear of striking out, though Escobar struck out 100 times last season, not an outrageous total for 648 plate appearances.
“I don’t think anyone likes to strike out,” Grifol says. “But that’s part of the game. Strikeouts happen. If you get to two strikes in the count, just battle, and he can do that. But I don’t think he likes necessarily to get to two strikes, so that’s what we have to do with him — make sure he understands he has the ability to hit with two strikes.
“He has tremendous hand-eye coordination, so I’m not worried about him striking out. It will happen, but he can fight pitches off.”
The other aspect of Escobar’s approach that is missing is bunting for hits. Last season, Escobar had 11 bunt singles among his 39 infield hits.
This season he has just three bunt hits and 22 infield hits.
Escobar, though, argues that he still wants to bunt but that teams are taking the bunt away.
“No, I don’t think bunting (is a problem),” he says. “When there’s a situation, I’ll bunt. But I don’t want to bunt when the guy is playing on the grass. You give the guy an easy out like that.
“But when I see a good time to bunt, I bunt. “
Grifol isn’t so sure Escobar shouldn’t bunt more regardless of the defense.
“We talk about that,” Grifol says. “He does need to bunt more. They are taking it away from him more this year, but still, if he makes a good bunt, even with a guy on the grass, they’re not going to get him.
“We have to continue to preach to him.”
The short-term answer for Grifol is to simply keep preaching his messages, and hope that Escobar eventually translates those messages once he’s in the batter’s box.
“We say all the time that we can talk all we want,” Grifol says, “but we can’t go in the batter’s box with you. You have to figure it out once you’re there.
“Esky has all the skills you’d want offensively. He can do this.”
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email him at email@example.com.