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Washington Nationals’ Danny Espinosa is back (and better than ever?!)

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Has Danny Espinosa turned the corner and become the player he was in those first magical seasons in the bigs? Or is he, maybe, even better?

Keep hitting like this, and I'll be able to find much better photos of you.
Keep hitting like this, and I'll be able to find much better photos of you.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Danny Espinosa first came up at the end of 2010, just as the Nats were starting to climb out of the 2008-2009 franchise nadir. He hit .214/.277/.447 over 112 plate appearances with 6 home runs. He walked 8.0% of the time and struck out 26.8% of the time. He was a low-average, low-patience hitter with a surprising amount of pop, and managed a 90 wRC+ (recall that 100 is league-average for a position player, and higher is better). That’s perfectly acceptable for a middle infielder, especially one with plus defense. Espinosa has played a fair bit of baseball between the end of 2010 and now, but take a look at his 2015 batting line so far: in 119 PAs, he’s hit .275/.373/.490 with 5 home runs, walking 11.8% of the time and fanning 21.0% of the time. Without knowing anything about 2011-2014, you might think this is the logical result of 4 intervening seasons of maturation as a hitter, slowly increasing contact and plate discipline while maintaining power. Sure, it’s probably a bit of a hot streak, but it makes sense, right? No. No, it doesn’t make sense, not if you’ve been paying attention to Danny Espinosa for the last four years. Let’s take a look at some numbers and see if we can figure out what’s going on. (Stats courtesy Fangraphs as of 5/18/2015.)

Over his first two full seasons, Danny put up similar stats to his late-2010 call up. In 2011, he hit .236/.323/.414 with 21 HRs and a 103 wRC+, while 2012 saw .247/.315/.402 and 17 HRs for a 94 wRC+. Again, that’s solid production for a defensive whiz at the keystone, good for consecutive 3+ win seasons. Combined with Ian Desmond, it certainly seemed as though the middle infield was a solved problem for years to come in Washington.

Then, in early 2013, we found out Espinosa had been playing through a torn rotator cuff at the end of 2012. His offensive production fell off a cliff. He spent most of 2013 in the minors, hitting a miserable .216/.280/.286 with 2 HR in 313 PAs at AAA Syracuse, which is a 59 wRC+. He was even worse in 167 PAs with the big league club, managing only .158/.193/.272 with 3 HRs and a 22 wRC+, which is less than you’d expect from a good-hitting pitcher (Doug Fister currently sports a 63 wRC+). 2014 saw improvement to .219/.283/.351 with 8 HR and a 75 wRC+ over 364 PAs, but that’s not enough hitting for an everyday player. Along the way, Danny’s already-shaky plate discipline went into the tank. His walk rate cratered to 2.4% in 2013 with a dead-cat bounce back to 4.9% in 2013. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate shot up to 33.5% in 2014 from "only" 28.1% in 2013. That’s positively Desmondian patience!

Over the past two seasons, Espinosa has been a replacement-level player. This season, he’s on pace for more than four wins, and he’s currently second in WAR on the Nats (albeit second by quite a bit to Bryce Harper). Let’s take a look at three stats: batting average on balls in play, isolated power, and K% - BB% (difference between strikeout rate and walk rate—it’s a mix of net patience and batting eye).

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

BABIP

.239

.292

.333

.202

.319

.319

ISO

.233

.178

.155

.114

.132

.216

K%-BB%

18.8%

16.5%

21.0%

25.7%

28.6%

9.2%

First of all, it looks like whatever success Danny is having isn’t merely good luck with where hits are falling. His BABIP (a rough measure of batting "luck") is higher than his career average, but it’s at levels he’s achieved in prior seasons. Backing that down to .300ish still leaves something like a .260/.355/.450 line, which is a solidly above-league-average hitter. Maybe the league will figure him out, but it’s not solely good luck.

Okay, perhaps he’s finally gotten healthy, as we talked about on the podcast last night. That dip in both BABIP and ISO in 2013 corresponds to his season of playing through the rotator cuff tear, indicating weak contact. Both of those bounced back in 2014, and perhaps it took an extra season to get to 100%. However, a quick look at the new "Hard%/Med%/Soft%" stats show that while 2013 saw fewer hard hits, 2014 actually had MORE than we’ve seen so far in 2015. The answer is more than his shoulder being at full strength and allowing him to hit the ball harder.

The really interesting evolution is in Espinosa’s plate discipline. The difference between his strikeout and walk rate has typically been from the high teens to well over 20 percent. This season, it’s less than 10 percent. He has both a career-high walk rate and a career-low strikeout rate in 2014. How’s he doing that?

Let’s take a look at a few more stats: swing rate at pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%), swing rate at pitches in the zone (Z-Swing%), the respective contact rates (O-Contact% and Z-Contact%), and swinging strike rate (SwStr%).

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

O-Swing%

31.0%

32.0%

40.5%

42.7%

38.1%

34.4%

Z-Swing%

70.4%

67.8%

70.4%

72.4%

70.8%

75.8%

O-Contact%

58.3%

65.7%

57.0%

57.6%

53.2%

66.2%

Z-Contact%

75.2%

81.1%

81.5%

79.2%

75.4%

84.1%

SwStr%

14.5%

11.6%

15.3%

16.5%

17.2%

11.3%

Now this is an interesting pattern. In 2012-2014, Danny swung at tons more pitches out of the zone, and his swing rate at pitches out of the zone has dropped dramatically this season. At the same time, he’s making a career high amount of contact when he swings at a pitch out of the zone. He’s going after pitches that are closer to being strikes (or pitches he knows he can hit, despite being out of the zone) and chasing fewer sliders in the dirt two feet outside. His career-low swinging strike rate (after an explosion in swing-and-miss over 2012-2014) reflects this, too. At the same time, Espinosa is swinging more often at pitches that are in the zone AND making contact more often on those swings, both rates being career highs. His zone-contact rate is up almost nine points over 2014!

So, long story short, Espinosa’s hitting ability has gone from average-but-promising to terrible to well-above-average (if he had enough PAs to qualify for a batting title he’d be just ABOVE Giancarlo Stanton in wRC+). He seems to have somehow completely revised his approach at the plate, by swinging at more strikes and fewer balls, and making more contact when he swings. How he’s doing THAT I couldn’t say, and I did check to find out that Danny’s been wearing contact lenses since he was a kid, so I’m pretty sure he’s on top of his prescription. Although, Mrs. Doghouse has noticed that he seems to step out during an at-bat and fiddle with his eye at least once a game… I thought it was just dust, but perhaps he’s started using Harper’s leftover cyborg parts?