The news apparently broke this weekend that Danny Espinosa is going to hit exclusively right handed in 2015. I say “apparently” because Mark Zuckerman mentioned this two months ago
Matt Williams on not being a "control freak" next year, Zimmerman's move to 1B, Espinosa maybe going RH only + more: http://t.co/2nDyU8of0U
— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) December 10, 2014
But there was the “maybe” to it – if you read the article, Rizzo is basically quoted as saying Espi’s moving to right-handed only, but giving himself the room to wiggle out of it if it’s a colossal failure. Well no more wiggle room, I guess, as Rizzo confirmed this weekend that Espi is exclusively right-handed now.
How Good Can He Be?
Why does this make sense? Well, while many people think Espinosa has been a terrible hitter, it turns out he’s just been a terrible left handed hitter. From the right side, versus lefties, he’s been great. His career .271/.343/.460 is impressive, and even in the last two seasons, when his overall OPS was a measly .561, his line from the right side was .259/.336/.485. That .780 OPS would rank him 6th among qualified 2Bs, 2nd among shortstops (ahead of Ian Desmond) over the last two seasons.
Alas, he cannot make everyone pitch to him lefty, and in fact, only about 1/4 of MLB pitchers are southpaws. Hence, the strategy of being great against lefties and terrible against righties has its flaws, and has not won him a starting role. The switch hitting has not worked out, so the Nats have decided to see if he can just hit righties like a normal right handed hitter does.
His numbers vs LHPs last year were nuts, so let’s take a look at his career .804 OPS against them. If he maintains that line against lefties, here’s a look at what a few different OPS marks vs RHPs (if 1/4 of his ABs were against lefties) would do for his overall OPS marks:
Holding that OPS vs LHPs constant is, of course, just a way to give us some perspective on what he would need to do to reach an overall respectable number. What’s respectable? Well, over the last three seasons, a .726 OPS gets you in the top 15 among 2Bs, .747 gets you in the top 10, and .784 gets you tied for 5th/6th with Chase Utley and Ben Zobrist. If he managed a .700 OPS versus righties, he’s a league average hitter at 2B, while being an above average defender.
This Won’t Be Easy
The reasons this hasn’t happened in previous seasons isn’t Espinosa’s stubbornness, as Rizzo noted. Ok, maybe that’s why it didn’t happen last season. But what I’m trying to get at here is that it’s really hard to do. As pointed out by Baseball Prospectus prospect evaluator Ryan Parker, it’s not such a simple move
There is danger in the move, too, from a physical perspective. If he mistakes a high and tight fastball for a breaking ball, he might not get out of the way fast enough, and could really get hurt. But that is, presumably, why he’s spent the last few months working on this in a cage (or equivalent) rather than, say, going to play in the Caribbean League.
It’s also just harder to hit righties from the right side. That’s why people have platoon splits, even if they’re minimal. So he may not see any improvement. We just won’t know until he gets out there and starts playing, which is why the Nats couldn’t just make him do it and then announce him as their starting 2B for 2015. Until it’s done in season, nobody knows how this will work out, and the safe bet is on it not working out. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad player – a plus defensive middle infielder who can rake lefties is a great thing to have – but it means he’s not a starter on this team.
But If It Works
On the other hand, if it does work out, it would be a boon for the Nats. If he can hit, this allows them to go in to 2016 with a starting middle infield of Yunel Escobar and Espinosa. Forgetting about second base for a moment, Espinosa might be the best infielder on the team. His range isn’t incredible, but he’s got a great arm and he’s fundamentally solid. That’s essentially the description of Escobar’s defense, but his youth and quickness most likely give him the edge in terms of range.
If we repeat the above OPS exercise for shortstops, over the last three seasons, a .681 OPS gets you in the top 15, .707 gets you in the top 10, and .757 gets you 5th place. In other words, if you believe in his SS defense, he’s just gotta manage a .650 OPS vs righties to be a league average hitting SS. Anything above that makes him better than that.
But if they don’t think he’s a SS, even with his limited playing time last year, Espi ranked among the top defensive 2Bs in the league. So if they’d rather slide Escobar back to short in 2016 and play Espi at 2B, they’ll have at least one plus defender.
Either way, it would allow them to fill the glaring hole they have as they most likely watch Desmond walk away and keep their fingers crossed that Trea Turner will be their starter by 2017(?).
This is, of course, all contingent on it working, and that’s far from a guarantee. But I like the fact that the Nats appear to be giving him a chance to succeed at it without putting him in the starter role. They essentially will have all of 2015 to see if it works. If it does, they’ll be in great shape for 2016, and my Espinosa shirsey won’t be so lonely at the stadium.