For his rookie season, Danny Espinosa hit .236/.323/.414 with 21 homers to go along with stellar defense at second base, leading to a 6th-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year chase. At first glance, those offensive numbers do not seem very impressive apart from the home runs, especially if you note Espinosa’s 166 strikeouts, tied for 7th most in the MLB. However, his struggles relative to established veterans are logical, as it is the rare player who plays his best as a rookie, and his numbers should be entirely satisfactory to someone monitoring his development.
Upon closer investigation, Espinosa’s numbers reveal his difficulties and inconsistencies with various facets of the game. He hit .233 or worse in every month except June and September, when he hit .274, demonstrating some unpredictability. Espinosa is a switch hitter, and had some stark splits between righties and lefties. Against right-handed pitchers, he struggled and hit only .223, but he mashed lefties to a .283 average. He also struggled with plate discipline, hitting .154 against 0-2 counts, with a 63% strikeout rate.
As these numbers clearly indicate, the only constant for Espinosa in 2011 was inconsistency. His monthly batting averages show hot and cold streaks, and despite being a switch hitter, he had difficulty against right-handed pitchers. All of these struggles are perfectly normal for a rookie. As he matures, his plate discipline will surely improve, dropping those strikeout numbers and raising his batting average against 0-2 counts. He will improve his batting from the left side of the plate and up his average against right-handed pitchers, becoming less prone to streaks as he becomes more comfortable with the long and tedious MLB season.
Many MLB players struggle somewhat as rookies, like Espinosa did, but through development and training, they can hone their skills and become great players. The Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki averaged .839 strikeouts per game in 2007, his first full season. The next year, that number dropped to .554, and Tulo is now one of the MLB’s premier shortstops four years later. In Lance Berkman’s rookie year, he suffered from Espinosa’s switch-hitting plight in the reverse: he hit .320 against right-handers, but a paltry .218 against left-handers. The next year, he improved his average against righties by 5.3% to .337, but his average against lefties went up 41.3% to .308. Since then, Berkman has made six All-Star appearances and finished in the top five of MVP voting four times.
There are many success stories for players who developed and matured after their rookie years, and these players become among the best in the game. However, this development is no guarantee. Espinosa must continue to work hard and seek coaching to improve, or his progress could stagnate. If he can’t improve, he, like any batter with his 2011 offensive numbers, won’t be around long. But Espinosa was a highly regarded prospect and has shown a lot of development since being drafted in the 3rd Round in 2008 out of Long Beach State. He has taken great leaps to reach the majors, and if he can take the final step like we all believe he can, he has the potential to become one of the premier middle infielders in baseball.