Nationals Baseball: An eeeeeaaaaaarrrly look at Danny Espinosa

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

An eeeeeaaaaaarrrly look at Danny Espinosa

Originally I wanted to take a quick look at Wilson Ramos to see if there was any way that his hot start was sustainable. Problem is - he just hasn't played enough games yet. I'm not going to go ahead and try to say anything about someone with 19 PAs even with qualifiers. You are just going to have to wait your turn, Wilson. Instead lets take a look at the only other National hitting well not going on the DL (I imagine all Nats fans look like the dog :37 seconds into this), Danny Espinosa. (yeah - I know he's only got 32 PAs himself - so what would be ludicrous to do for Wilson is simply silly to do for Danny)

The big knock on Danny was that he could not hit for average. For most of 2009 and 2010 he struggled to maintain an average around .260 in the minors. He also struck out a bunch. Having trouble making consistent contact in the minors is usually a recipe for disaster in the major leagues. However Danny is youngish, he flashed a decent average in his short stint in AAA, and he didn't bomb out of the majors in his first go round, so the thought was he could maintain some sort of workable average in the majors that would allow his patience and power to make him a useful offensive player. Something in the neighborhood of .250 would be nice. Danny is now hitting .280.

When someone hits for a higher average than you expect - the knee jerk reaction stats-wise is to look at his Batting Average for Balls in Play. This number is usually pretty stable. If he's much higher than normal, than he might just be getting lucky. That IS what we see. Danny has a BABip of .375 while we'd probably expect something in the low .300's based on his minor league stats.

Before we go and call him lucky though, you can change your BABip by changing your batting approach. Is Danny hitting more LDs (real good for getting hits) and GBs (ok for getting hits) than FBs (bad for getting hits unless they go over the fence)? Yes he is . From last year's brief stint in the majors his line drive rate has impoved from 8.3% to 12.5%, GBs are up from 45.8% to 50%, and FBs are down from 45.8% to 37.5%. For 32 at bats it's not statistically meaningful, but it is what we want to see. That's the good news. The bad new is that 12.5% LD rate, the rate that you can usually look at to get an idea of how well a guy is hitting, is more in line with a .250 average (if that) than a .280 one. Really what this suggests is that he's not going to hit .214 again, but the .280 won't stick either.

What about Stirkeouts? Do they early numbers here tell us anymore about Danny? Again - not on the side of the .280 Espinosa. He's striking out at a 36% rate so far. While that should go down (he was around 30% last year and around 25% if you look at the minors) it suggests that it is because he's not making a lot of solid contact with the ball. That's not right, though. He is not swinging and missing at pitches any more than before - his actual contact stats are slightly up on pitches both in and out of the zone, his swinging strike rate is down. How is he striking out more? He's taking ALOT more pitches so far. He swung at 31% of pitches out of the zone and 70.5% of pitches in the zone last year. Those numbers have plummeted to 19.5% and 58.6% respectively.

Personally I take that as a good thing. Danny is 16th in the league in pitches per plate appearance*. Given that Danny's walk rate is up from last years numbers to where we'd like to see it I think it's fine if he's taking a few more strikes and striking out a bit more in exchange for getting on base at a nice clip. Another good sign is that his power is so far right on line with what we'd like to see.

If you love batting average, this review a bit of bad news for Danny. That .280 average does look to be unsustainable and we should see a drop at some point. But I think there is more good news here for Danny, the offensive player. All the stats suggest that Danny is the hitter the Nats wanted him to be at the plate this year. A low average guy with good patience and power. He might be striking out a bit more, but it looks like it's the unfortunate consequences of successfully getting on base more, as contradictory as that sounds. Early indications are that the Nats will get that .250 15 HR, 65 walks guy they wanted, with the hope of better things in the next few years as he learns to better distinguish what's a strike or not at the major league level. I'm mildly enthused.

*LaRoche is 7th, Werth 10th, Zimmerman 24th, Ankiel is seeing 4 pitches an at bat. Give Rizzo credit here. The Nats are working the opposing pitchers. Overall they are 4th in the majors in seeing pitches, snuggly fitting in between Boston and the Yankees. It is a recipe for success. Make a starter work so you can weaken him and get his not-so-fresh stuff as early as possible, Even if a starter is dominating you might be able get past him more often into a team's soft underbelly of middle relief. Now all the Nats need is to get guys that can hit.

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