In 2011, the Pirates signed Venezuelan outfielder Elvis Escobar to a $570,000 bonus, making him one of the Pirates’ top international investments that year, alongside Harold Ramirez. A quick, compact swing that produces hard line drives has made Escobar an intriguing prospect. He also has good speed and a solid arm in the outfield.
Escobar’s ability made the Pirates comfortable enough to give him an aggressive push to the GCL in 2012 at just 17 years old, and he was not over-matched at the level. However, the 2013 and 2014 seasons were a struggle. He was sent to short season A-ball in 2013 and he performed okay. He finished the season batting .268 but had a 47/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in only 183 at-bats. Escobar didn’t receive consistent playing time that season, which could have attributed to his average performance at the plate.
Partly because of injuries to other outfielders ahead of him on the depth chart, Escobar was promoted to West Virginia to start the season in 2014. Escobar was over-matched this time, though, and he batted .210 with a .554 OPS in 200 at-bats. He also had a 55/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Pirates ultimately sent him back to Jamestown to finish off his season.
Escobar has returned to West Virginia for a second go-around this season, at the age of 20, and his performance has completely turned around.
“Oh man, a complete one-eighty — the difference between this year and last year,” West Virginia Hitting Coach Keoni De Renne emphatically said about his performance.
Escobar is batting .291 with a .687 OPS that has been trending upward as the season goes along. This coincides with a much-improved 18% strikeout rate, compared to his 28% rate last season in West Virginia. According to De Renne, this big improvement stems from the adjustments they made with Escobar’s swing. Last July, the Pirates decided to incorporate a leg-kick into his swing, and shifted his hand positioning up slightly above his shoulders. They added the leg-kick in order to help fix Escobar’s balance and timing issues at the plate.
“Last year at times he was just striding, which was causing him to be out front a lot,” De Renne explained. “It made him susceptible to a lot of off-speed pitches, and he was chasing them because he wasn’t picking them up well.”
The Pirates were hoping that this new timing mechanism would keep Escobar from shifting his weight to his front foot too early, and would force him to stay back longer in his swing-load. This would aid Escobar with pitch recognition and would help him pick up the breaking balls he was having so much trouble handling over the past two seasons.
It took time for Escobar to adapt to these adjustments, and he seems to be getting more comfortable with what he’s doing at the plate. The evidence is in his gradual improvement this season – In April, Escobar batted .263 with a 23% strikeout rate. In May, he hit .296 with a 17% strikeout rate, and so far this month, Escobar is batting .306 with a 15% strikeout rate. De Renne is thrilled with Escobar’s trust and patience with the process.
“It’s just a testament to him believing that it was going to work” De Renne said. “He’s had the perfect mentality and he’s a great testament for guys who trust in what they’re trying to do to get better — and look at him now.”
Considering the average age of Low-A is right around 22 years old, Escobar is still considered young for the level. If he can continue his progress into the second half of the year, he will become an interesting prospect going forward. Escobar is not a big guy. He is only 5’ 9″ and weighs 165 pounds. That, coupled with his line-drive swing, will most likely limit the amount of power he will produce. His speed and defensive ability still give Escobar a chance to be a Major Leaguer. His future role will be dependent on his ability to continue to get on base going forward.