Unusual suspect: Kelvim Escobar
Team: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Position: Starting pitcher
Stats: 17-7, 3.46 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 156 Ks
Measurements: 6'1", 230 lbs.
Nickname: None. So let's go with "The Goggled One."
Signature: Intimidating batters with his scary supernatural spellbinding spectacles
Mysteries: How did he make the leap from a workmanlike No. 3 starter to a Cy Young Award candidate? While wearing his goggles, does he feel like Jodie Foster at the end of "Silence of the Lambs"? And does that make every batter he faces like Buffalo Bill? And does that make Angel Stadium like Buffalo Bill's freakish dungeon and Angel Stadium's rocks and fountain in the outfield like the ancient rotting corpse in the bathtub? And would all that then make the rally monkey like Buffalo Bill's annoying dog? OK, this is getting ridiculous ...
Entering the 2007 season, expectations were mild for Kelvim Escobar. With their staff anchored by proven aces John Lackey and Bartolo Colon and complemented by a couple of rising studs in Jered Weaver and Ervin Santana, it's hardly a surprise that the Angels have churned out a couple of Cy Young candidates. But Kelvim Escobar wasn't supposed to be one of them.
Viewed as nothing more than a solid No. 3 starter, Escobar finished the 2006 season with double-digit wins (11) for the fifth time in his career to go with a 3.61 ERA and 147 strikeouts in 189 1/3 innings. With a career 4.16 ERA, he was the Phil Hartman of the Angels. Versatile (notched 38 saves in a stint as a closer in 2002 with Toronto), consistently effective (sub-4.00 ERA in each of the last three seasons) and always good for a laugh (um, the goggles) but willing to let others steal the show (never won more than 14 games prior to '07).
So how exactly has Escobar turned into an ace and a dark-horse contender for the American League Cy Young Award?
To the evidence!
K zone: By taking advantage of his mid-90s fastball and mixing in a deceptive changeup, The Goggled One has improved his strikeout rate this season. His 7.40 K/9 rate puts him in the Top 20 among AL starters with at least 100 innings pitched and is a marked improvement from his 6.99 rate from 2006.
Big winner: How does Escobar have six more wins and seven fewer losses than he had a year ago in spite of a higher walk rate? By not letting those added runners score and being supported by an improved bullpen. Offseason addition Justin Speier (2.81 ERA since 2005) has helped improve Escobar's runs allowed average, or actual team runs allowed, from 4.42 in 2006 to 3.29 this season.
Support group: Even a dominating pitcher needs help from his offense in order to accumulate wins. Just ask Matt Cain. Escobar has had no such problem, as the Angels have provided him with 6.50 runs per start, good for eighth best in the AL.
Luck factor: It's luck. It's always luck. Or at least a little bit always help. Escobar sports a BAABIP (batting average against on balls in play) of .287 compared to his .294 mark of a year ago. Hey, it can't always be the goggles.
This is weird, and it just has to be explained. What's the deal with Los Angeles athletes and goggles?
It started off innocently enough when the Lakers won championship after championship with the bespectacled help of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and, of course, Kurt Rambis. And it only made sense that four-eyed legend Horace Grant played his final NBA season in L.A., of all places.
But recently, this trend has all taken a whole new turn in the Majors.
As pointed out in Paul Lukas' "Uni Watch" blog as of 2006, the list of bespectacled Major Leaguers was limited to 13 players. Of those 13, four either play or have played for the Angels recently (Escobar, Francisco Rodriguez, Brendan Donnelly and Ben Weber), and three have recently played for the Dodgers (Jason Phillips, Duaner Sanchez, Eric Gagne). That's seven out of 13, meaning that roughly 54 percent of all ocular-challenged baseball players have called SoCal home in the past few years.
Do you see what's going on here?
Yeah, I don't really, either.
But anytime I can incorporate Kurt Rambis into my column, that's just something I can't pass up.