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thoughts_on_yunel | June | 2009 Articles

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Thoughts on Yunel

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It's taken me a long time to get to the point of having to write this. I'm a Yunel Escobar apologist, but even I have to acknowledge that problems are starting to come to a head. It was bad enough that he got yanked from a game after a two-base run-scoring mental error, but that came after months of caught stealings, getting thrown out on the bases, and increasingly sloppy play in the field, despite a seemingly arrogant demeanor at the plate, bat-flipping, and all the rest of it -- look, you know his faults as well as I do.

In many respects, he's still the guy we fell in love with when Edgar Renteria got injured in 2007: gap power, good contact skills, ability to take a walk and work the count, good range, and a cannon arm. He's an up-the-middle defender who can hit and field, and as such is worth his weight in gold; for now, he's basically making the league minimum. (I wrote this long defense of Yunel when it seemed he might be included in a Peavy deal.)

It's hard to overstate how bad his baserunning is, though. Despite above-average speed, he's a bad base stealer, with 9 career SBs in 18 attempts. And he makes a ton of outs on the bases. Bill James Online calculates that all of his caught stealings and outs on the basepaths resulted in a net loss of 25 bases last year, and he's already at negative 6 this year. As a fielder, his Plus/Minus was a phenomenal +21 last year; this year it's exactly 0, as he's made 2 more plays than the average shortstop would have made, but two fewer plays in the air. He's a plus hitter, but he's a minus-minus baserunner, and his fielding isn't making up the difference any more.

The bigger problem seems to be his failure to adapt, though. The Braves feel they've given him a fair amount of rope; they did so because of his frankly amazing journey to defect from Cuba and come to play baseball in the States. I honestly admire him for the courage it took to come here, and I admit that colors my perception of him. I also think that a lot of the macho attitude he carries, and a lot of the arrogance he exudes, is a sort of overcompensation. Overcompensating for not really knowing the language, for feeling like an outsider, for carrying the knowledge that the other guys who defected with him didn't make it in the big leagues.

But he's acting out. And all my pop psychology doesn't excuse the poor play on the field, or the poor attitude that has frustrated his teammates and coaches alike, including Chino Cadahia, who's often the designated go-between because he's also Cuban. I understand why people feel like they're at the end of their rope, because you'd like to see the guy improve: after a year and a and a half as the starting shortstop, he really should cut down on the boneheaded blunders, learn to temper his aggressiveness with a bit of the wisdom of experience, and really learn to stop pissing off the umpires who ultimately are the on-field arbiters of right and wrong.

We don't have any other in-house options -- Diory Hernandez and Omar Infante are, for obvious reasons, not real options, and Brandon Hicks is nowhere near ready to start for a major league team, if he ever will be. So we're stuck with him in the meantime, in the same way we're stuck with Kelly Johnson and Jeff Francoeur because of a lack of positional organizational depth. (Of course, Brandon Jones probably could fill in for Jeff, but, like Diory, he seems to be viewed as a bench guy.)

Could a sports psychologist help him adjust a bit better and mature? Well, maybe, but I realize I'm reaching. Reacquiring Yunel's best friend Brayan Pena might be hard unless we actually traded talent for him -- he's a Royal now, and apparently doesn't want to leave. And we don't have room for him on our roster either.

Maybe we should thank our lucky stars that Yunel doesn't have a habit of drinking and driving, like our last homegrown shortstop. He still has a cannon arm and a great bat for a middle infielder. I know I'm apologizing for him. I still feel for the guy and like him a lot, so it's hard for me to see all of his faults clearly. I know a lot of Braves fans are genuinely getting to the point of turning on him, realizing that if he were on any other team, his antics would really get on their nerves. I'd probably feel the same way. But he's my guy.

I really wish he'd do better, though. I prefer rooting for him to making excuses for him.

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