“He’s been tremendous,” Davey Martinez said when asked about Paolo Espino’s work as part of the Washington Nationals’ bullpen and rotation this year.
The 34-year-old who debuted in the majors in 2017, then did not pitch in the big leagues again until 2020’s 60-game season, earned himself a starting job in D.C., amidst all the injuries the club has dealt with over the course of the 2021 campaign, and has become a reliable starter.
“Everything we’ve asked him to do, he’s been really good,” Martinez continued, “... and now he’s getting to start every five days, and he’s kept us in the ballgame. And for a starter that’s all you can ask, but he’s smart, he knows who he is, and when he pounds the strike zone with all his pitchers, he’s really good, and like I said, he’s been tremendous all year for us.”
Through 32 games, 16 starts, and 97 innings pitched on the year, before Espino started the series finale with the Colorado Rockies on Sunday afternoon, he had a 4.18 ERA, a 4.27 FIP, 21 walks (1.95 BB/9), 83 Ks (7.70 K/9), and a .257/.296/.455 line against, with a 4.42 ERA and a 4.48 FIP, a .276/.316/.477 line against, 17 of his walks, and 63 of his strikeouts in 73 1⁄3 IP as a starter.
What really stood out looking at his profile on Baseball Savant, was the .176 AVG against his curve, even after the rest of the league has gotten a good look at him, and with a .293 AVG on his fastball, and a solid .236 AVG on his slider (along with a .462 AVG on his changeup, which he’s thrown just 8.3% of the time this season, w/ 55.1% 4-seamers; 25.3% curves, and 16.1% sliders). So what’s allowed him to continue to be effective with his breaking ball?
“His best pitch is his curveball; it has an elite spin rate,” Assistant GM, Player Development Mark Scialabba told FBB’s David Driver when Espino was first called up last season.
Heading into Sunday’s start, Espino’s spin rate on his curve was in the 96th percentile in the majors this season, according to Baseball Savant, and his manager talked before the outing about his ability to vary the speed with which he throws it to further keep hitters off-balance on his breaking ball.
“It’s the change of speed,” Martinez said.
“I mean, he can throw one 76-77 MPH, he can throw one 68 MPH, so the change of speed, and you don’t know when he’s going to throw it. I mean, he can throw it 3-2, because he’s got confidence in throwing it for strikes, so he uses it in any count.”
“I think it’s — I’m going to say it’s probably about the location and mixing in the fastball and the curveball good,” Espino said, after he tossed 5 2⁄3 scoreless against the Rockies, giving up three walks and three hits, while striking out seven in what ended up a 3-0 win.
“I think those two pitches go well, fastball and curveball, and I think that’s the key. That’s the key.
“As soon as I’m able to command the fastball the curveball is going to be really good after it.”
Espino had real good command of his fastball on Sunday, throwing it 52 time, for 57% of his 91 pitches, and generating six swinging and 12 called strikes on the pitch overall in the start, with six of his seven Ks coming on the four-seamer, which appeared to fool Rockies’ hitters on a few occasions. Were Espino and catcher Keibert Ruiz mixing things up, going against the scouting reports, and throwing fastballs where he’d usually throw curveballs.
“I think they — I don’t know, maybe they saw some scouting reports,” Espino said.
“I mean, I know I throw the curveball and the slider a lot, and today, with two strikes, I ended up throwing a lot of fastballs, and maybe they were expecting an offspeed [pitch], I’m not sure, but it looked like it worked, it worked good. So it’s not that I was changing everything, it just, it got to the point where maybe in that count I got to a situation where I thought a fastball was good, and Keibert was calling a good game, and we were syncing pretty good, and today was definitely a good outing.”
“It’s all about location, location, location with him,” Martinez added. “Like I said prior, is that he understands how to pitch, he studies hitters, he knows when he can elevate fastballs, he knows when to go down and away with fastballs, so he did that today.
“He had seven strikeouts, six with fastballs, but he knows when to throw them, and he was outstanding today, just like pretty much he’s been all year, he’s been really good all year.”