Friday, May 29, 2015

Appreciating Danny Espinosa

While everyone would acknowledge Bryce Harper has been the MVP of the Nationals so far (and likely the MVP of the National League if the season ended today), the most underrated contributor to the 2015 season has been Danny Espinosa. He is hitting .256/.357/.463 with 6 homeruns, a line good enough to be 22% above average by wRC+. Considering that his wRC+ in 2014 and 2013 were 75 and 22, respectively, and that Espinosa was pegged for a bench role at best coming into the season, he has gone above and beyond all expectations as he fills in for the injured Anthony Rendon.

The reason for the terrible 2014 and 2013 seasons put up by Espinosa were directly a result of his struggles as a left handed hitter facing right handed hitters. In 2015, he has flipped that story, as you can see in this comparison of 2014 to 2015:


Excuse me for a second as I throw up a little in my mouth after reading that 2014 line as a left handed hitter... Ok, now that that is out of my system, I can acknowledge that it wouldn’t take much to improve on that 2014 stat line, granted, but Espinosa’s 2015 has put it in the dust, even considering the low batting average. As a lefty, Espinosa has tripled his walk rate and cut his strikeout rate significantly enough that his OBP is over .300. He has flashed some serious power from the left side, hitting 5 of his 6 home runs batting as a lefty and 6 of his 7 doubles. Espinosa has always been a good right handed hitter, but his 2015 season as a right handed hitter has seen a lot of singles thanks to a sky high BABIP of .529 and only 2 extra base hits. The 2014 version of Espinosa was bad enough that he actually spent Spring Training hitting only right handed in an attempt to keep a bench job. So far in 2015, he has hit like an everyday player from both sides of the plate and, combined with his usual stellar defense, has been the 2nd most valuable everyday player on the Nationals this season by Fangraphs WAR (tied with Denard Span).

It’s not hard to find where Espinosa’s struggles came from. As a left handed hitter in 2014, pitchers attacked Espinosa low and away:

They did that because Espinosa couldn’t hit the outside pitch. He was pulling everything, as you can see from his spray chart below that shows all balls in hit in play by Espinosa as a left hander in 2014.
You see how few balls he hit to left field. My theory is that Espinosa’s shoulder, which he hurt a couple of years back, was still limiting his hitting as a left hander. Given his shoulder, it looks like he was having to start his swing early so he could catch up to the fastball. With his swing starting so early, Espinosa was out in front of the outside pitches and ended up rolling over and pulling the ball to the right side. As a result, Espinosa’s 2014 heat chart as a left handed hitter contains very little heat and a lot of cold:
The pitches low and in Espinosa could get to, but everything else might as well have been a black hole.

In 2015, Espinosa has adjusted. Take a look at his new heat map for 2015 as a left handed hitter:
Those bright blue zones low and away in 2014 have turned into hot zones. The different approach also shows up in his spray chart.
In 2015, you see a much more even distribution of line drives and fly balls to the right and the left side of the field. Now, it could be a different approach that Espinosa has adopted or he could be seeing the ball better. I would put my money on a finally healthy shoulder that allows him to wait a little longer before committing to a swing, enabling him to turn on the inside pitches and to still get to the outside pitches.

Whatever the reason, Espinosa has been able to get to the outside pitches better and is turning those pitches into well hit balls instead of hacking away to no avail. As the Nationals chug along with Espinosa in the lineup, going mostly unnoticed, Rendon is finally getting some game action in extended Spring Training. When Rendon finally gets back to the big league squad, it will a much tougher decision to leave Espinosa off the lineup card each day than we would have expected in the spring.

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