The conversation began a bit clunky, then it turned a little nerdy. Not in a numbers-crunching way, but rather in a bat-path way. Danny Espinosa, it turns out, wasn’t too loopy after all.
I’d never formally met the Angels infielder prior to approaching him in Tempe earlier this spring. We had interacted, albeit briefly. That was last September, when he was in Pittsburgh as a member of the Washington Nationals, and I was interviewing Trea Turner. Sidling up from the adjoining locker, Espinosa raised an imaginary microphone and asked his then teammate: “Are you the best player in the National League?” He then walked away, bemused, as I claimed that was going to be my next question. (It wasn’t.)
Fast forward to our recent, and more expansive, exchange. The first thing I asked Espinosa, who was acquired by Anaheim over the offseason, was why he was so inconsistent with the bat as a Nat. After a quizzical look that led me to rephrase my question, he suggested he’s happy to be in the American League.
“I’ve hit in the eight hole a lot — most of my career I’ve hit seventh or eighth — and hitting in front of the pitcher is tough,” said Espinosa. “I know you can’t put that in a computer and see why, but it’s a different at-bat. You’re not going to get as many good pitches to hit with no threat behind you. And while they might pitch around you, they could also come after you, and that can change within an at-bat.”
Espinosa elaborated, admitting that hitting in front of the pitcher became “a bit of a mind game” for him. He surmised that he’s probably been too aggressive at times, particularly when slumping.
The 29-year-old switch-hitter took umbrage when I asked if maybe a more patient approach is in order.
“I don’t think I’m a one- or two-pitch guy and then my at-bat is over,” retorted Espinosa. “I can wait out my pitch. When the time calls for it, I can wait, wait, wait. I’m not first-pitch-I’m-going-to-swing, and I’m not first-pitch-I’m-going-to-take. Truthfully, I’m just looking for a pitch I can drive.”
He’s more than capable of doing that. Espinosa went deep 24 times last year — a nice number for a middle infielder hitting near the bottom of the order — although it’s not his goal when he steps in the box. He simply wants to “get a good swing off; not an out-of-control swing, but a good swing where I can hit the ball in the gaps.”
The Angels will be elated if he can do that on a more regular basis. Espinosa has his hot stretches — he had nine home runs and an 1.122 OPS last June — but his career slash line is .226/.302/.388, and his strikeout rate is 28.1%.
The extent to which hitting higher in the order would improve those numbers is debatable. Espinosa was in the eight hole in his monster month, and as evidenced by his splits page, he’s actually fared worse when given an opportunity in front of the boppers. As for where Mike Scioscia will be penciling him into the Angels lineup, that’s a question yet to be determined. When I asked Espinosa what he expects, his answer was a wry, “I don’t know, but I won’t be hitting in front of the pitcher.”
Espinosa’s eyes lit up when I proceeded to mention launch angles. Five minutes into our conversation, I’d hit upon a subject that elicited enthusiasm, rather than rejoinders.
“That’s something I studied this past offseason,” said a suddenly engaged Espinosa. “Looking at film, I realized I was too steep, so my bat was in and out of the zone. I always thought I was too loopy, but in fact it was the other way. Because of the angle I was at, I had to be too perfect to the ball and basically could only hit one pitch. I’m working on staying through the ball longer, and on plane longer, so that I can hit more pitches.”
Clearing fences when he does connect isn’t the objective. Creating more loft is all well and fine, but what he really wants is fewer whiffs.
“I’m cleaning up my swing so that I can make more contact and hit for a better average,” explained Espinosa. “Strikeouts aren’t something I’m OK with. Like I said, being too steep, and having to be too perfect to the ball, has hurt me. I think there is something to the launch-angle stuff people are talking about. The guys who are more level, and in the zone for a long time, can hit a lot of different pitches. Those really good hitters… they’re on plane with the ball forever.”
The adjustment is taking time. Espinosa has just seven hits in 38 at-bats so far this spring, with 14 punchouts. Not great. But with the requisite amount of patience, that should improve. Bat-path changes may indeed be a panacea for his eight-hole woes.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.