Danny Espinosa’s Bat Path: An Angel Battles to Erase Eight-Hole Woes

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.

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7 years ago

Starting to wonder how pitchers will adjust if the launch angle revolution actually improves hitting league-wide. Too early to say it will, of course. It’s a matter of execution, not just an awareness of its importance, but if launch angle can save Danny Espinosa’s bat, it can save anyone’s.

7 years ago
Reply to  hscer

I was under the impression that Danny Espinosa was a gold glove caliber player that never should have left. Obviously his BABIP was way low and you can’t undervalue all those HBPs in the 8-slot.

Really, you can just ignore his massive strike-out rate and just look at his homeruns. Without a doubt, mark my words, Danny Espinosa will be on the All-Star team this year

7 years ago

20 homeruns is what Freddy Galvis does now, not All stars

7 years ago

Is this a troll post?

7 years ago
Reply to  Bjd1207

Not at all and I’m sure others like can back me up on this as well. He’s got plus speed and gold-glove defense. When he got a real chance last year he put up 24 home-runs and that’s with no protection in the line-up. How many short-stops hit more home-runs than him last year? Machado, Seager, Tulo? This is an elite player by any stretch of the imagination and the Nationals are fools for letting him go.

You can ignore the 29% strike-out rate because look at how many taters he hit and you know a strike-out isn’t that bad of an out as it’s not a double-play.

Did I mention he hit a lot of homeruns and plays great defense?

7 years ago

again, Freddy Galvis hits 20 HR now. It doesn’t mean anything.

7 years ago

Yes, it’s all you’ve mentioned because it’s literally his only 2 bright spots. First on the offense, stop with the “ignore 29% K rate cuz homers.” Just start with wRC+, where he pegged a 79. So he’s 20% worse than the average MLB hitter. Despite the article, if he wasn’t hitting in 8 spot his OBP would probly drop another 15-20 points so even cushioned by the 8 spot he’s well below average, and even ranks him 18th among SS. Then you factor in that he hasn’t been “elite” on defense in about 3 years, and last year graded out at 11th among SS. So offense 20% below league average and a glove that’s good but outside the top 10 nets you…1.7 wins on the year. Elite????? What are you smoking?