Danny Espinosa's Hero's Journey

In narratology and comparative mythology, the hero's journey is the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero going on an adventure and in a decisive crisis wins a victory and then comes home changed or transformed. (Wikipedia 'Monomyth')

Danny Espinosa and I have a complicated relationship. Before the 2013 season I declared him one of three Nationals most likely to have a 20/20 season. That obviously did not happen. After his disastrous 2013 many Nats fans were incensed that he would even be allowed at spring training and I came to his defense; showing how his right-handed pop and great glove in the middle infield would make him a valuable bench guy. When he showed that in 2014, many wondered if the Nats would be fine with Espinosa starting and batting eighth and I turned against him. I laid out the case why Espinosa being the planned Opening Day starter was a bad idea.

So here we are again with my opinion on Danny Espinosa taking another subtle shift. That should be unsurprising to those who have seen his excellent .275/.373/.490, 131 wRC+, 1.0 wins above replacement start to the season. He’s essentially replicating Anthony Rendon’s last season offensively, an incredible accomplishment considering what he has been through the last two years.

Suffice it to say the 28-year old (he’s younger than Tanner Roark and Tyler Moore) has had an unusual career progression. Now of course 119 plate appearances are too few to make sweeping judgements as to where his career is heading next. But it is important to remember that this isn’t a guy coming out of nowhere, he was a solid MLB starter his first two seasons with 3.3 and 3.5 win seasons.

That’s not to say there is nothing we can learn about Danny Espinosa from the early goings. Plate discipline and strikeout/walk rates stabilize fairly early. Big differences there can show a hitter has made a real change, rather than some small sample size magic.

And these numbers seem to show a real change. Espinosa has a career high walk rate of 11.8 percent and a career low strikeout rate of 21.0 percent. His previous career bests were 8.7 percent and 25.2 percent respectively, both coming in his rookie season. So this year has been a big departure so far from anything we’ve seen from Espinosa before.

SeasonTeamO-Swing%Z-Swing%Swing%O-Contact%Z-Contact%Contact%Zone%
2011Nationals29.80%64.50%46.70%61.60%81.90%75.20%48.70%
2012Nationals37.00%70.20%52.30%55.00%80.50%70.70%46.00%
2013Nationals41.30%70.60%55.10%56.10%79.10%70.00%47.10%
2014Nationals35.40%69.80%51.30%45.40%78.00%65.90%46.10%
2015Nationals32.90%71.90%52.50%61.80%84.80%77.60%50.40%
Total- - -34.00%68.20%50.30%55.40%80.40%71.50%47.50%

His plate discipline numbers according to PITCHF/x tell a similar story. His swing rate at pitches outside of the zone is down a bit, while his swing rate at pitches in the zone is up. The big difference maker though is his contact rates. His contact rate with pitches inside and outside of are both well above his career averages, giving him a career high 77.6 contact rate. Of course a high contact rate doesn’t always mean better hitting, not all contact is equal. But for a guy who struck out in about a third of his plate appearances last season, a better contact rate seems like a good thing.

All of this puts together makes Espinosa one of the best bench players in MLB. And I would still call him that, a bench player, at least for this season. Some have wondered if the Nationals might be better off moving Ian Desmond to the bench instead of Espinosa, with his ice cold 77 wRC+ and 11 errors not endearing him to many. But as I said at the start, it’s still early and Desmond has been the best shortstop in baseball the last three years, you don’t just bench him willy nilly.

That doesn’t preclude a move back to the starting lineup in 2016 though and in any case Espinosa has carved out a good career for himself as a backup. That’s still a great story considering how he was languishing in the proverbial hell that is AAA late in 2013. If Espinosa can truly make these changes stick, he is the literal emobdiment of the hero's journey. It’s also good for the Nats, since Espinosa only just entered arbitration this season, making him a cheap cornerstone of the Nats depth through 2017.


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