Wednesday, November 11, 2015

2015 Season Review: Danny Epinosa

You don’t have to believe me, but I was one of the last riders on the Danny Espinosa bandwagon. I know I was not the last; he has family members who surely held on longer than I did. But it came pretty close to being me and Espinosa clan, it felt like. Through his struggles in 2013 that saw him demoted to the minors and even into the start of 2014, I was pulling for the guy. While a lot of people looked at the strikeouts and low batting average and quickly passed judgment, his speed, defense, and power kept me interested. But even I gave up on him during 2014.

He ended 2014 with a mere .219/.283/.351 batting line. He struck out nearly 36% of the time. While his defense was as solid as ever, his .238 wOBA as a left handed hitter makes my eyes hurt. Things got so bad that Espinosa was even forced into entertaining the idea of abandoning his switch hitting ways and focusing solely on hitting right handed. The history of players doing that is not littered with great successes. It’s a last ditch effort of a player trying to hang on to a bench role in the majors. At some point during the 2014 season, the pressure grew to be too much and I decided I’m out.

I wasn’t the only one who was out. Mike Rizzo was out too and so signed Dan Uggla as reinsurance at second base. When Anthony Rendon started the season on the DL, it was Uggla, not Espinosa, who got the starts. Matt Williams was out too. Everyone was out, except for Danny Espinosa himself. And he answered by keeping the Nationals afloat for most of the 2015 season.

In order to truly appreciate what Espinosa brought to the table in 2015, offensive statistics won’t do. While Espinosa improved drastically offensively, more on that to come below, his defense is still his calling card. Fortunately, WAR (Wins Above Replacement) takes into account both offensive and defensive contributions. Depending on the WAR formula you prefer (Baseball Reference and FanGraphs are the two leading sources and have some small differences in their math), Espinosa was either the Nationals second or third most valuable position player in 2015 with around 2 WAR. Bryce Harper clearly led the pack, but it’s a tight competition between Epinosa and Yunel Escobar for the #2 spot. Thing is, WAR is a counting stat. The more games a player plays in, the higher WAR that player can accumulate. Due to some stubbornness from Matt Williams, Espinosa actually played in 20 fewer games than Escobar. On a per game basis, Espinosa was the second most valuable position player on the team.

I’m sure a lot of Nationals fans wouldn’t have suspected that to be the case because Espinosa’s .240 batting average is nothing to write home about. But his .311 OBP combined with his ability to hit for power (13 home runs to go with 21 doubles and 1 triple in 2015) resulted in a .310 wOBA and a wRC+ (another weighted offensive statistic where 100 is league average) of 94. Espinosa went from being a bad AAA hitter in 2014 to a major league average hitter in 2015.

He did so by reversing so many of the negative trends from 2013 and 2014. He boosted his walk rate from 5% to an above league average 8% walk rate. That 36% strikeout rate from 2014? Down to 26%. Those improvements stemmed from Espinosa’s improved contact rates. 2015 saw Espinosa make the most contact over a season since 2011 and post his lowest swing and miss rate since that same 2011 season. The holes in Espinosa’s swing disappeared and he was able to cover the whole plate. A pull hitter by nature, in 2015 Espinosa found a way to use the whole field, going to the opposite field a career high 26% of the time.

Espinosa never did make that change to hitting only right handed, but he is still a better hitter from that side of the plate. In 2015, he posted a .261 batting average and a .332 wOBA from the right side. As a right handed hitter, Espinosa hits for a higher average, has a higher walk rate, and strikes out less often than as a left handed hitter. As a lefty, Espinosa hit only .233, but still managed a .302 wOBA thanks to the 10 home runs he hit as a left hander and an ISO (Isolate Power)30 points higher than his score from the right side. Espinosa sacrifices average for power when he moves from right handed to left handed. He was able to hold his own as a left handed hitter in 2015 by drastically cutting down on his strikeouts (a near 40% strikeout rate in 2014 down to 26% in 2015) and by taking more walks (a 4% walk rate in 2014 versus a rate over 7% in 2015). No longer a liability when facing right handed hitters, Espinosa can now be slotted in the lineup regardless of the pitcher’s handedness.

While Espinosa’s offense abandoned him for several seasons, his defense never faltered. He posted some of the best advanced defensive metric scores of his career at second base in 2015. He even played 50 innings at short stop during the 2015 season. While the advanced stats didn’t love him in that position, those stats are hard to rely on over small sample sizes of even a single season so 50 innings is far from a reliable sample. The eye test says that Espinosa’s arm can certainly handle shortstop and his instincts and first step appear quick enough as well. That gives the Nationals a lot of flexibility this offseason as Mike Rizzo and company decide how to handle the middle infield positions.

Espinosa’s improvement appeared to come out of nowhere in 2015. Espinosa had posted back to back subpar (being generous) seasons coming into the 2015 season. What people may forget, though, is that Espinosa had a torn rotator cuff he played through at the end of the 2012 season. He opted not to have surgery at that point and still to this day has never gotten any surgical work done. A rotator cuff is not a minor injury. It certainly can’t be expected to fully heal with a short offseason of rehab. Espinosa tried to play through it and it looks like it took two seasons before he was recovered. For that reason, the Espinosa everyone saw play in 2015 is likely the true Danny Espinosa; the Danny Espinosa who will be asked to play a much larger role on the 2016 Nationals.

Previous 2015 Season Reviews:
Denard Span
Ian Desmond
Doug Fister
Jordan Zimmermann
Wilson Ramos
Ryan Zimmerman

1 comment:

  1. numbers numbers numbers...all true however (speaking as the co-pilot of the Danny Espinosa bandwagon) the best thing about that guy is his character he's got heart and guts- he never gave up, never gripes about the decisions or bad timing or anything- he jumped in whenever and wherever (left field anyone?) he was asked - that guy is a great example of a classy guy- i hope he has a great 2016.