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Nationals Second Base Search: Right Side Only Danny Espinosa

Last Thursday, we started our look at potential middle infield targets with a look at the Nexen Heroes Kang Jung-Ho. Before we get into the domestic free agents that the Nats could target to fill their vacancy at second base, let's look at the internal options that the Nationals already have on the roster.

Like many of you, I'm interested in seeing how RSOD would work. Even if it doesn't pan out, the Nats have a quality starter at second base roughly 30% of the time. They can't forget this when free agency begins.
Like many of you, I'm interested in seeing how RSOD would work. Even if it doesn't pan out, the Nats have a quality starter at second base roughly 30% of the time. They can't forget this when free agency begins.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Before we take a deeper look at the free agent pool, let's take a look at the internal options that the Nationals have.

We know that Anthony Rendon gives the Nats some flexibility as he's shown that he can play either second base or third base. In a 215 inning sample this season, Rendon showed dramatic improvement at second base, netting +4 DRS (-5 DRS in 2013). This is, of course, an incredibly small sample that didn't have any chance to stabilize. However, he was on pace for more DRS at second base than he had at third base (12 in 1148 innings) this season. I feel that the organizational preference is for Rendon to remain at third base, but it would certainly widen their search grid if they were to add third basemen to the list of players they consider targeting this offseason.

With that said, we're going to focus more on the other internal option that the Nationals have that plays second base. At the very least, Danny Espinosa has shown that he can hit left-handed pitching extremely well....

Season vs L as R AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BB% K% wOBA wRC+
2010 .200 .286 .560 .846 .360 10.7% 25.0% .358 121
2011 .283 .361 .496 .857 .213 8.9% 22.6% .374 137
2012 .281 .344 .431 .775 .150 7.1% 25.7% .340 112
2013 .125 .216 .313 .529 .188 2.7% 32.4% .237 44
2014 .301 .374 .485 .859 .184 7.0% 21.7% .371 137
Total .271 .343 .460 .804 .189 7.5% 24.4% .350 121

As a right-handed hitter, Espinosa has a career .350 wOBA and a 121 wRC+ (21% better than the league average). He's had just one bad season (2013), which can probably be partially attributed to the fact that he was playing with a torn rotator cuff.  In three of his five seasons, he's been at least 21% better than the league average offensively when facing left-handed pitching. How has he done batting left-handed, though?

Season vs R as L AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BB% K% wOBA wRC+
2010 .218 .274 .410 .684 .192 7.1% 27.4% .296 79
2011 .223 .314 .393 .707 .169 8.6% 25.9% .312 95
2012 .233 .303 .391 .694 .158 7.1% 30.3% .302 87
2013 .167 .186 .262 .448 .095 2.3% 26.9% .197 16
2014 .183 .241 .291 .532 .109 4.0% 39.0% .238 46
Total .213 .284 .362 .646 .149 6.7% 29.8% .285 76

Batting left-handed against right-handed pitching, Espinosa's career wOBA of 76 would have ranked among the ten worst regular starters in the league in 2014*.In fact, over five seasons, Espinosa has never had a wRC+ of better than 95 batting lefty, which means he's been no better than 5% below the league against right-handed pitching in any season of his career. He's been particularly bad the past two years (16 wRC+ in 2013, 46 in 2014).

*Not regular starting second basemen.... all players who qualified for the batting title at every position

Because there is such a wide gap in his numbers, there's been a lot of speculation that Espinosa should consider batting only from the right side. He's had a few major problems from the left side:

  • He's undergone several changes to his swing in an effort to find ways to be more effective. Nothing has really worked.
  • He has a longer swing from the left side than he does from the right side.
  • He often seems to have more trouble identifying breaking balls from the left side, which may be partially due to the longer swing.

Swing mechanics

I was all psyched to find some gifs of Espinosa batting right-handed and left-handed so that I could break them down.  Believe me... I tried, but I didn't have a lot of luck.  Instead, we're going to rely on something that Espinosa said himself back in August.

"It's consistency.  I go up there and I do the same thing. I go up there with the same stance. I know what I want to do and what I can do. Left-handed I’ve been searching for comfort in my stance. So right-handed I’ve done the same swing, been the same guy since I’ve been in pro ball as far as my setup. I just feel comfortable right now right-handed."

Having watched Espinosa since 2010, I can certainly vouch for that statement. Early in his career, Espinosa had a pretty pronounced uppercut to his left-handed swing, which made him kind of boom or bust from the left side. In 2011 and 2012, Espinosa hit 29 of his 38 homers from the left side, though his overall production was quite a bit better batting right-handed. The uppercut is gone now, but he's adjusted his swing from the left side several times.  He's tried standing more upright. He's tried widening his stance.  He's tried shortening his swing. As the numbers tell us, nothing has been particularly effective. His swing from the right side has been similar (and productive) for as long as he's been in the majors.

Can it be done?

A search of switch hitters who gave up batting from one side of the plate doesn't turn up much. The only two players that I could turn up who have done that recently are Shane Victorino and Aaron Hicks. Let's take a look at both of them.

Shane Victorino

Victorino actually gave up switch-hitting in 2013 due to hamstring and back injuries. Because of the injuries, he couldn't push off his left leg like he's been able to throughout his career, so he decided to scrap switch hitting and bat exclusively from the right side for the remainder of the year. He ended up being extremely productive that season, batting .300/.386/.510 in 115 PA against RHP after the change. While he'd hinted that he planned to return to switch hitting in 2014, he didn't end up doing so. In an injury-plagued 2014 season, Victorino wasn't nearly as productive in his second go-around, batting .241/.289/.361 in 90 PA vs. RHP.

Victorino made the switch because of an injury, but he's always had a problem that's similar (though not nearly as extreme) to Espinosa's. He's always been better from the right side. Victorino has a career .303/.372/.503 line (133 wRC+) batting right-handed against lefty pitchers. He has a career .266/.328/.398 line (93 wRC+) batting lefty against right-handed pitchers. All-told, he has a .268/.333/.445 line (115 wRC+) facing right-handers from the right side. That includes the occasional appearance batting right-handed against a RHP earlier in his career (predominantly against R.A. Dickey.... a lot of knuckleballers have reverse splits).

Aaron Hicks

A look at Hicks doesn't provide us with quite the optimism that a look at Victorino does. Hicks hasn't had a lot of success at the major league level in general, turning in a career .201/.293/.313 line in two seasons with the Twins. His minor league performance prior to getting the call in 2013 was at least partially responsible for the Twins trading away Denard Span and Ben Revere in the same offseason a few years ago, but he hasn't been able to stick for a full season in the majors with his first couple of shots.

From the left side, Hicks has pretty much been a zero with the bat. He's produced a .184/.269/.280 line (54 wRC+) in 321 career PA. He's been fairly productive from the right side, though, batting .244/.349/.409 (115 wRC+) against left-handed pitching. He decided in May to give up switch hitting and bat exclusively from the right side. He managed just 20 PA against RHP batting right-handed before being demoted to the minors; He hit just .176/.263/.176 in those plate appearances. During the ten weeks that he was in New Britain (AA) and Rochester (AAA), Hicks resumed switch hitting, citing that he was having a lot of trouble with breaking balls.

Areas of concern

The two biggest areas of concern for a player who gives up switch hitting are going to be:

  • Seeing the release point from a different angle
  • Breaking balls/off-speed pitches

Based on Espinosa's career 121 wRC+ batting right-handed, we know that he doesn't have a lot of trouble picking up the ball with his left eye instead of his right. However, when he's seeing the ball thrown by a lefty, it's coming from a completely different angle than it would be when a pitcher who throws right-handed is pitching. Pitchers who are LOOGYs often thrive because they throw from angles that are particularly difficult for a left-handed hitter to pick up. Sidearmed right-handers tend to thrive on this same deception. For a switch hitter to stop batting from one side, all of those same-handed pitchers are going to seem more deceptive.

Hicks went back to switch hitting because he couldn't handle the off-speed pitches and breaking balls. Victorino's teammate Daniel Nava, a switch hitter himself, did a pretty good job of summing up how everything must look completely different while talking about Victorino's switch to batting only right-handed last season:

"Imagine facing the best pitchers in the world and everything is opposite now -- two-seamers are coming in to you, curveballs are going away from you. What he's doing is very impressive. I wish I could do it."

Looking at Espinosa's numbers batting right-handed, it seems like he should give up switch hitting, but there's definitely something that needs to be taken from Nava's comments. Everything is opposite. Espinosa is used to seeing two-seamed fastballs and changeups tailing away from him. Sliders and curveballs are usually breaking towards him. That's a difficult adjustment no matter what level you're playing at. There's no guarantee that he'd be as effective batting against right-handed pitchers when swinging from the right side as he is facing lefties.

Should Espinosa try batting exclusively right-handed?

The consistency is the key. He's shown more consistency in repeating his right-handed swing. He actually admitted that he considered trying batting exclusively right-handed at one point during 2012. The fact that he's been in the majors for parts of five seasons and hasn't managed to find swing mechanics that work for him from the left side is the biggest issue here. It would take some getting used to for Espinosa to find a way to hit effectively (as a RHH) against right-handed pitching, but he'd be using the same swing mechanics that he's grown comfortable with as a right-handed hitter throughout his career. He's been a pro ballplayer for seven years now (big leaguer for five)... If he hasn't figured out how to improve his mechanics from the left side by now, it's probably never going to happen.

If the organization wants him to try it, now is the time. Get him playing winter ball somewhere and batting exclusively from the right side. He won't face the level of competition that he will in the majors, but it would give both Espinosa and the organization a better idea about whether he can handle making the switch to batting right-handed full time. He would see curveballs and sliders breaking away from him. He would see some two-seamers bearing in on him. If he can do it, great. If he can't, it's better to figure that out with him playing in the Mexican League or Dominican League than during the regular season.

Can the Nats commit to him as a full time starter?

Regardless of whether the Nats ask him to play winter ball and get some reps against right-handed pitching as RSOD (Right Side Only Danny), absolutely not. His presence on the roster does mean that the Nats won't necessarily have to spend on a star looking for a big payday, though. Why? Espinosa has shown over the past five seasons that he's an above average starting second baseman when facing left-handed pitching.

I've had... discussions in the past year in the comment sections here at FBB about platooning. I know that some of you aren't too keen on that subject. The fact of the matter, though, is that the Nats already have a player who has a career 121 wRC+ against left-handed pitching and had a 137 wRC+ against lefties this past season. They can go out and spend $10+ million on a player to become a full-time starter at 2b or 3b and limit Espinosa to a utility role... Or... They could go out and spend about $5 million on a player to provide them with a stronger presence against right-handed pitching and serve a utility/backup role when the opponent is throwing a left-handed pitcher. The thing about players with "warts" is that the come cheaper.

For that reason, when I look at free agents later this week, I'll be much more focused on how they perform against right-handed pitching. The Nats faced left-handed pitchers in 29% of their plate appearances in 2014. With Espinosa locked in (entering his first year of arbitration), the Nats figure to have a high quality starter at second base for 25-30% of their games. They should find someone to handle most of the remaining 70-75%, with Espinosa getting the occasional start (if things work out) against right-handers. If it works out so well that the Nats want Espinosa to play more regularly than that, it's a lot easier to bump a platoon player to a bench role than it is to bump a guy they're paying $10+ million a year to the bench.

Free RSOD!