Washington Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa didn’t play a role in last night’s big 10-5 victory over the Red Sox, but he has certainly made his presence felt this season. In an April that has been marred by defensive miscues and offensive droughts, Espinosa has performed well on both sides of the ball and, surprisingly, on both sides of the plate as well.
In three games this season, Espinosa is 3-for-9 with a home run, two RBIs and four runs scored. He hasn’t gotten a lot of playing time this season, with Dan Uggla making most of the starts at second base, but in the brief time that he has been on the field and in the batter’s box for the Nationals this season, he’s played just about as well as anyone could expect.
Of course, the sample size we’ve seen from Espinosa is really small. After all, he’s only played in a third of the team’s games this season and only has three hits. Despite the small sample size, there’s one important fact about Espinosa’s season so far that can’t be overlooked, even after just nine at-bats: all three of his hits have come from the left side of the plate facing right-handed pitchers.
For the Nationals, seeing Espinosa have success from the left side of the plate in his first few games of the season is both welcome and surprising. After all, Espinosa and the Nationals announced before Spring Training that the infielder would be batting exclusively right-handed this season.
Espinosa, a switch-hitter by trade, has always been a better right-handed hitter than left-handed hitter. It was never more evident than last season, when he hit a miserable .183 from the left side of the plate, while boasting a .301 batting average from the right side.
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Given his left-handed struggles in recent years, it wasn’t surprising to hear that Espinosa would be abandoning switch-hitting altogether in 2015 and many applauded him and the Nationals for the decision. I even wrote a few months ago that the change could ultimately help save Espinosa’s career.
But after seeing how much he struggled during Spring Training (he batted .125 in 56 at-bats), it became clear that the change wasn’t working. The Nationals stuck to the plan of Espinosa batting exclusively right-handed for most of the spring, but it was evident that focusing so much on batting from the right side was only making his hitting worse and slowing down his preparation for the season.
Once the regular season began, however, the experiment was officially over, and Espinosa stepped into the box to bat left-handed in his season debut against the Phillies April 11. That day, he went 1-for-4 with a booming double to right field. Two days later, Espinosa went 1-for-3 with two RBIs, including a long, solo home run to right-center field at Fenway Park. The next day, Espinosa went 1-for-2 with a single. All of those hits came from the left side of the plate, and all of them were important for the Nationals.
In the end, the Nationals want Espinosa to be comfortable from whatever side of the plate he’s hitting and they don’t want the idea of batting exclusively right-handed to mess with the mental part of his game, as manager Matt Williams told the Washington Post’s James Wagner earlier this season:
"“It’s a mutual decision,” Williams said. “We want him to be free of mind when he gets out there. He hit a lot right-handed in spring, so he’s got experience doing that so if he gets a match-up that he feels comfortable with, righty-righty, he can do that.”"
Whether or not Espinosa returning to switch-hitting has eased his mind remains to be seen. What we can say, however, is that Espinosa has looked confident in his first few at-bats from the left side this season. Not only does he look more relaxed than he did this spring, but his mechanics have changed as well and, so far, it looks to be paying off.
As Nationals’ broadcaster F.P. Santangelo noted during Tuesday’s game against the Red Sox, the infielder appears to be using a different hitting approach from the left side than he has in previous years. Espinosa is not using the big leg-kick he used batting left-handed last season. Instead, he’s keeping his lower half relatively calm which keeps his head steadier when he swings.
As I said before, it’s still way too early to know if the changes Espinosa made to his swing can help make him a better hitter from the left side. But so far, whatever he’s doing is working. And if Espinosa can overcome his struggles from the left side of the plate, he could be a major asset for the Nationals’ offense.
Switch-hitters are a valuable commodity in today’s game, and if Espinosa can be productive from both sides of the plate, he may very well find himself with a permanent spot in the starting lineup at some point this season.