Oh, Yunel, you bubbly fidgeting wonderfully frustrating player... It seems the first thing that people think of when they think of Atlanta Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar are his idiosyncrasies on the field and in the batter's box. When Tom Glavine returned to the Braves in 2008, he initially thought that someone in the bullpen was whistling at him while he was on the mound. He called Chipper Jones over to ask him about it, and Chipper said "that's just Yunel."
In many ways, Escobar's whistles and hoots and hollers are a throwback to an earlier time. Like Cuba itself, many Cuban baseball players are stuck in a different era of baseball, and for Escobar all of that is just part of his colorful personality. Perhaps it's also a way that he can relate and express himself while not being a native English speaker.
Unfairly those eccentricities on defense get mixed up with his sometimes unenthusiastic trot to first on assumed outs, and his mental errors while running the bases -- the two are not related. Those problems also overshadow the fact that Escobar is one of the best hitting shortstops in the National League. In fact, with a .373 average he's the best hitter in the National League with runners in scoring position (minimum 100 ABs) -- that's pretty clutch. His .329 batting average against right handers also ranks fourth in the NL, and his value extends to his batting order flexibility -- he is an equally good hitter batting second (.816 OPS) as he is batting fifth (.809) or sixth (.848).
Those of us who watched him all year know how good he can be day in and day out. That consistency was on display every month of the year. In fact it's on display every month of every year. The most impressive stat I found about Yunel is that he has only hit below .270 in one month of his three big league seasons. Just one out of 16 months has he hit lower than .270 (July of '08, when he hit .230). That is some outstanding and rare consistency, and very valuable to a team like the Braves who have so many other hitters who run hot and cold.
For reference sake, the average Major League batting average last year was .262 and the batting average for NL shortstops was .268 -- Escobar was above average in every month of the season.
The only other knock against Escobar, besides his eccentricities and occasional mental lapses, seems to be his durability. He played in a career-high 141 games this season and never went on the disabled list, but he was hobbled and unavailable for many games due to several nagging injuries. This is not something any team can really plan around, and the Braves just have to hope that Escobar can weather the inevitable injures that come from a player who plays the game as hard has he does.
As a defender, his 13 errors were middle of the pack in baseball for shortstops. He did have a spectacular 46-game errorless streak that ended on September 28th, and he committed just 2 errors in his last 75 games. His UZR tells a different story, and one I did not expect to find. He had a -2.6 UZR this year, preceded by a 1.7 last year and a -0.7 his rookie year (according to Fan Graphs). While it looks like Escobar is getting to a lot of balls and making some spectacular plays, he is a shortstop with only average range. Of course, he does possess one of the strongest arms of any shortstop as we've heard on many broadcasts, but I have yet to find a stat to rate arm strength.
Escobar should be back in Atlanta next year. The Braves did try and trade him as part of the Jake Peavy package last off-season, but perhaps they've finally realized how valuable this guy is in the field and with his consistency and clutch hitting in the batter's box. Depending on what offensive pieces the Braves add this off-season, they have the flexibility of being able to hit Escobar just about anywhere in the batting order. Hopefully we can watch Yuney grow up some more while still in a Braves uniform.