Champ or Chump - Alcides Escobar and Alex Avila

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Fantasy owners hope that every selection they make turns into a stud, but this isn't that realistic. In more practical terms, you want as many strong performers as possible while avoiding roster slots with zero (or less) value. Some positions are easier to find "non-zero" production in than others, giving birth to the concept of positional scarcity.

If you decline to pay up for a top performer at a premium position, you'll end up hoping for someone who won't hurt you. Shortstop is stronger than it has been in years, but somebody might still roster Alcides Escobar for cheap speed. Likewise, Arizona's Alex Avila is far from the worst case scenario in one of your C slots.

Here is a closer look at what you can expect from either player.

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The Fantasy Jury is Out

Alcides Escobar (SS, KC)

Escobar stunk last year, turning in a .250/.272/.357 line with six homers and four stolen bases. Owners who rostered him were probably hoping for speed, and his seven CS were simply terrible. Thankfully, it looks like a fluke.

Using Statcast's Sprint Speed metric, Escobar was actually slightly quicker last year (28.2 ft./sec) than he was in either of the previous two campaigns (28 ft./sec each). The 31-year old hasn't started losing his speed yet, so he should go back to 15 steals or so this year.

Escobar's newfound fondness for fly balls is more concerning. He typically avoids air balls, compiling a FB% of 29.9% in 2016. That rate jumped to 37.4% last year, almost as if he was trying to hit for power. If he was, he proved that he can't. His average airborne exit velocity of 88.8 mph and 2.2% rate of Brls/BBE were both well shy of the MLB average. Both marks were actually Statcast Era highs for the shortstop, but the resulting HR/FB was only 3.2%.

Escobar also has a pop-up problem, compiling a 10.4% IFFB% over his career. He usually hits too few flies for this to really matter, but last year's 10.8% IFFB% put a lot of downward pressure on his BABIP with all of those fly balls. His .291 BABIP was still close to his career rate of .296 thanks to some fortunate line drives (.694 BABIP vs. .636 career), but Escobar's airborne contact quality shouldn't be counted on for anything.

Escobar's BABIP on ground balls also declined to .208 from a career mark of .245. His average exit velocity on the ground fell to 78.7 mph from 81 mph in 2016, providing a likely explanation why. He averaged 81.9 mph in 2015, so history suggests that at least a small rebound is in order.

Kansas City used Escobar as their leadoff man from May 8 to June 4 last season in an effort to recapture #EskyMagic. It didn't work, and Escobar lacks the eye (2.4% BB% last year, 3.9% career) most teams want at the top of the lineup. Still, his history of "success" there might inspire Ned Yost to try it again at some point this year. If it happens, Escobar will get more runs scored than he has any right to.

Escobar struck out more often than usual last year (16.2% K% vs. 13.6% career), but his K% was still pretty good for today's game. He's very aggressive, so he should continue to outperform his 10.5% SwStr%. This should prevent his batting average from completely bottoming out, and he might help in the category if he cuts down on his FB% and the BABIP gods smile upon him.

Escobar is not a good fantasy option, but he isn't any worse than he was at this point last year either. He should grab some steals and maybe some runs with a batting average that won't kill you. No need to reach for him early, but he's a fine AL-Only play or substitute off of the waiver wire.

Verdict: Champ (sort of)

 

Alex Avila (C, ARI)

Unlike Escobar, Avila was great last year with a .264/.387/.447 line and 14 bombs in 376 PAs. Avila has two elite skills (plate discipline and contact quality) and is a disaster everywhere else. OBP and power are more than most fantasy catchers bring to the table though.

Let's start with the positives. Avila seldom swings at an offering outside of the zone (14.3% chase rate last year, 20.3% career), allowing him to walk in 16.5% of his PAs. His career rate is 14%, suggesting that regression in this regard is unlikely.

He also pounds baseballs. Last season's 21.5% HR/FB was supported by an impressive average airborne exit velocity (95.4 mph) right in line with his past performances (96.8 mph in 2016, 95.6 in 2015). He also significantly boosted his FB% (22.8% in 2016 to 33.9% last year), giving him the launch angle required to put up a 14.5% rate of Brls/BBE. He's always been pretty good by this metric (8.7% in 2016, 10.6% in 2015), but last year took it up a notch.

Moving to Chase Field could potentially help Avila's power numbers. Both Comerica Park (98 HR factor) and Wrigley Field (97) suppressed left-handed power slightly in 2017, while the ball flew out in Phoenix (110). However, there are whispers that the Diamondbacks plan to start using a humidor in 2018, a change dramatic enough to render previous ballpark factors unreliable.

Avila also hits his grounders with authority. Last year's average ground ball exit velocity of 84.3 mph was actually his worst mark of the Statcast Era, as he averaged 87.1 mph in 2016 and 84.4 mph in 2015. This allows him to have reasonably productive grounders (.203 BABIP both last year and career) despite the facts that he runs like a catcher (25.8 ft./sec per Statcast Sprint Speed) and faces the shift frequently (152 of 179 PAs last year).

Unfortunately, it's time to consider the flaws in Avila's game. He's widely regarded as a poor defensive catcher, so his owners may see Jeff Mathis's name in the lineup far more often they they want to. His FB% is still on the low side for a slugger, especially one who runs like a catcher. He also pulls very few of his flies (7.7% last season), mandating his current contact quality to get balls out of the park.

Avila also strikes out way too often (31.9% K% last year, 28.1% career), a fact unlikely to change unless he swings at a lot more of the pitches that come his way (36.8% Swing% last season). His 12.7% SwStr% is actually fine for a slugger--he's just too patient for his own good at times.

This flaw was masked by Avila's .382 BABIP last year, but that's probably unsustainable. His 27.6% LD% bordered on ridiculous even if his career rate is on the high side (24.3%), and his .792 BABIP on line drives also far exceeded his career total of .715. His grounders are also worse than the league average of .241, and a fly ball BABIP of .216 is extremely high.

To be fair, Avila almost never pops out (1.5% IFFB% last year, 2.6% career) and his well above average contact quality gives him a career BABIP of .180 on flies. Still, he represents a potential batting average drain with his K% if his BABIP falls out of the stratosphere.

Arizona signed the backstop for less than $10 million guaranteed over two years, so the market apparently wasn't that high on his skill set. If your leaguemates make the same mistake, pounce on this potential top-five fantasy backstop.

Verdict: Champ

 

More 2018 Player Outlooks



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