A Switch to the Mound has Elvis Escobar Looking Like a Prospect Again

Elvis Escobar once looked like an outfield prospect for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was never considered possible starter material, but he did enough on the field early is his career that he looked like he could make it to the majors as a fourth outfielder. That was especially true when he was more raw tools than results in the lower levels and you saw a speedy outfielder who could play any spot. He hit line drives all over the field, and even though he’s small in height, he was deceptively strong and could hit the ball out of the park.

The problem with the outfield version of Escobar was that he never really developed as a player. He was never able to put his speed to good use on the bases. He made mistakes in the outfield and he was never selective enough at the plate. The tools never translated to success. That’s why he hasn’t played outfield since May. Now just weeks away from minor league free agency, he’s starting to look like a prospect again.

Earlier this year, Altoona was losing badly late to Harrisburg and they called on Escobar to finish out the game on the mound. He needed just one out, but three hits, two walks and one hit batter later, he was removed from the game. That horrible pitching performance may have been the best thing for him.

We have always mentioned that Escobar had a cannon for an arm. The problem with his arm in the outfield wasn’t the strength or accuracy, it was how long he took to get rid of the ball. He would have extra steps, a hop, reach back far enough to the point the throw probably included some grass that he picked up just before unleashing a cannon shot. That arm was always intriguing though, which is how he got to where he is right now.

That day on the mound back in May, Escobar threw 94 MPH. The Pirates decided at that point that their outfielder, who was batting .151 through 40 games, might have a better future on the mound. He was put on the disabled list with a phantom injury and began his work to become a pitcher.

Not long ago, I looked at the upcoming minor league free agents and didn’t mention Escobar for a fairly simple reason. He had 24 innings of Low-A experience on the mound and the season was coming to a close. That’s not someone who gets added to a 40-man roster. We got great reports on him, but I expected him to move up at least a month ago to face better competition. When that didn’t happen, it seemed like he was just playing out the string with the Pirates and his time would soon be coming to an end. Things took quite a turn this weekend.

The Pirates suspended Luis Escobar and Yeudy Garcia for violating club policies. Elvis Escobar was one of the arms who took their roster spots. He had just pitched two shutout innings in West Virginia, giving him a 2.08 ERA in 26 innings, with a .187 BAA, a 1.12 WHIP and 28 strikeouts. Now he was moving up two levels, going from A-ball to the upper levels of the minors, which is a much bigger test.

You don’t want to take too much from the results of one game. That’s a good rule of thumb for every single level of the minors and every player. Escobar threw 2.1 shutout innings on Tuesday night, striking out five batters. That’s an impressive debut for anyone, but considering his situation, it’s an extremely impressive outing. That’s not why I’m writing up this article though.

The reports I got from Low-A were spot on for Escobar. I took them with a grain of salt, thinking there may have been some exaggeration because he wasn’t a pitcher doing those things. You don’t expect an outfielder to come to the mound and pitch well, so maybe that type of thinking was getting lost in the reports. I watched Tuesday night with some pessimism and came away realizing those reports were all true.

Escobar was sitting 94-95 MPH on Tuesday until the end, showing stamina you wouldn’t expect from someone who reached his career high with 45 pitches. He has hit 96 MPH this year already. He was throwing a big breaking curveball in the 78-80 MPH range and he had a nice changeup. The most impressive part is that he controlled all three pitches well, not only throwing them all for strikes, but he was getting swinging strikes on all three pitches.

In Low-A, you see a lot of off-speed pitches fool hitters because you tend to get a lot of players who don’t do well with anything except fastballs. You also see a lot of chasing up out of the zone, so a high strikeout total in the lower levels can be deceiving. We have used the other Escobar as an example of that. Luis got a lot of chases in Morgantown and West Virginia, but his strikeout total dropped as he went up this year because he wasn’t doing anything different and better hitters were laying off those pitches he had success with prior to 2018.

So without seeing someone pitch, it’s really tough to figure out if he’s having success because he’s really good and it can play up at a higher level, or his success stems from impatient hitters getting themselves out. The live view of games can sometimes change the impression you get from only viewing boxscores.

Elvis Escobar was striking out guys with pitches in the zone on Tuesday. The curve was freezing lefty hitters, while right-handed batters were out in front of the changeup. He was also hitting his spots often with the fastball. The control was what really stood out.

That one game really changes things for him. You don’t often see a lefty who can hit 96 MPH and use three pitches for strikes. It came against a Trenton team that not only scored seven runs in the first six innings against guys drafted as pitchers, they are also a playoff team on a winning streak.

Escobar looks like he has a future on the mound. If this is what he looks like after three months, you would have to imagine there is more in there and they have just started to scratch the surface. So now the Pirates have a decision to make with him. I assume he has shown enough already, especially after Tuesday night, that they want to see more from him. They are going to need to re-sign him this off-season.

The interesting part is now what will he do in winter ball, where he has been an outfielder for the same team for the last five years, getting a much bigger role with his Venezuelan club over the last two winters. As a new pitcher, you don’t want him putting too many innings on his arm in the first year, so I don’t think he will pitch, but I’m guessing he could still play.

If you’re the Pirates, you’ll probably want to sign him to a minor league deal before winter ball starts and keep him off the mound, where more scouts can focus on him. That helps two ways, keeping him from overworking during his first year as a pitcher and keeping him more of a mystery during the Rule 5 process as a pitcher because he’s exactly the type of lottery ticket that teams take a chance on in the Rule 5 draft.

Regardless of what he does the rest of his time on the mound this season and in the playoffs, it looks like Escobar is once again a prospect.

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