May 4, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Washington Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa (8) at bat against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the seventh inning at PNC Park. The Washington Nationals won 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What's Wrong With Danny Espinosa? A Statistical Inquiry

It is no secret that Danny Espinosa has struggled thus far in the 2013 season. Through 34 games, he is hitting .192/.229/.364, far below what a starting second baseman should hit and far below his own usual levels. To find out why, and what might happen with his numbers going forward, we must delve into the wild world of advanced metrics and non-traditional stats. These might not be the numbers you hear about every day, but they can help us gain a much better understanding of the reasons behind a player’s performance.

The two best sources for these stats are Espinosa’s Fangraphs page and his Baseball Reference page. These pages have many of the more in-depth stats we can use to analyze Espinosa. The main thing we can look for is stats that differ significantly from his 2012 or career stats, and see what they could have changed in how he is playing.

May 7, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa (8) singles during the fourth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Looking through these pages, a few stats jump out. Espinosa’s walk rate has plummeted to 3% from his career 7.5%. However, confusingly, his strikeout rate has also dropped precipitously, from 26.6% career and 28.7% in 2012 to just 21.8% this year. Given those two, these next stats should not be a surprise: Espinosa’s swing rate and contact rate have both jumped, by about 3.5% and 4% respectively, depending on whether you look at Fangraphs or Pitch f/x, both of which can be found on Espinosa’s Fangraphs page. These four stats together indicate that Espinosa is swinging more and getting the bat on the ball more, which is why his strikeout rate hasn’t gone up with his swing percentage.

Putting more pitches into play would usually be good for a player’s batting average, but Espinosa’s batting average on balls in play is .225, far below his career .301. While baBIP is usually tied to luck, and some of this may be luck, the fact that he is making more contact could mean that he is making different and more easily fielded contact. Indeed, Espinosa’s line drive rate has dropped from 18.9% in 2012 to 12.3%. Line drives are much more likely to result in hits than ground balls or fly balls, and a bad line drive rate means Espinosa is not hitting the ball well.

There is no reason to believe that the way he is hitting pitches he usually swings at differently, but let’s look at the pitches he is swinging at that he has not in the past. Fangraphs says Espinosa is swinging more at pitches both inside (+2.7%) and outside (+1.7%) the zone. Pitch f/x disagrees, and says Espinosa’s swing rate on pitches in the zone has increased by only 0.6%, while his swing rate on pitches outside the zone has increased by 4.6%. If the two metrics are disagreeing over whether some pitches are balls or strikes, it means that they are likely on the edge of the strike zone. Espinosa is trying to make more contact by swinging at those pitches, but they result in outs when he does.

What all of these stats tell us is happening is that Espinosa is swinging at more borderline pitches, trying to make contact, and successfully putting them into play. His desire to make contact is leading him to make bad contact on those borderline pitches, as his line drive percentage has dropped by over a third while his ground ball to fly ball ratio is nearly identical, which has led to his low baBIP and his low average overall. His decreased walk and strikeout rates are a result of this as well, as pitches that would have rung him up or been ball four are being put in the field of play instead.

He should work to lower the rate at which he swings at pitches outside of the zone, which will up his anemic walk rate. However, being more hesitant to swing at borderline pitches will also decrease his swing percentage on pitches inside the zone, bringing both back to career norm levels. He should see a rebound in his baBIP when he stops swinging at and hitting outside pitches poorly and instead makes better contact on pitches he can drive, which will consequently bring up his overall average.

In conclusion, it looks like Espinosa is simply being a bit more aggressive than usual in the early season and putting emphasis on making contact without consideration to the quality of that contact.  When he fixes his habits, he will likely return to the same numbers he usually has: a high strikeout rate and an average in the .240s, unless his higher contact rate remains when he stops swinging at pitches on the edge of the strike zone, which would increase his average and drop his strikeouts. While it is natural to be concerned about Espinosa’s current play, he has started seasons slowly before. He was hitting .189 on May 9th, 2012, and .214 on May 10th, 2011. These stats do not tell us whether he had the same issue early in other season, but we do know that he can rebound from a slow start, and is doing so now: He is 10 for his last 31. With a similar average at this time last year, he was able to finish hitting .247, and there is little reason to believe he can’t do it again.

Some may doubt the usefulness or accuracy of these stats, but they are criminally underused. Normal stats can tell you how a player is doing, but these can tell you why. Hopefully you’ll see in these what I do: an opportunity to better understand a player’s performance.

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