Dave Nichols: Espinosa’s struggle to make contact is alarming

During the offseason and into spring training, if you asked 100 Nationals fans which middle infielder they would be concerned with having to replace at some point in the 2012 season, I’d venture to guess 98 of them would have replied, “Ian Desmond.”

Their answer is not without basis. Desmond has had challenges both offensively and defensively as he continues to try to establish himself as a starting shortstop in the major leagues.

This season, Desmond, 26, isn’t really burning things up at the plate either - despite hitting the walk-off home run in last night’s 5-4 win over Arizona. The shortstop is hitting just .267/.299/.416 after 23 games, a full sixth of the major league calendar. But the real middle infielder that should be at the top of everyone’s list of concerns is second baseman Danny Espinosa.

Espinosa is off to the worst start of his career. After his 0-for-3 (with another strikeout) last night, he’s hitting .188/.286/.247, with just one home run and two RBIs. It’s hard to hit home runs or drive runners in if you can’t make contact, and right now that’s Espinosa’s biggest problem. The 25-year old is striking out at an alarming rate, 30.3 percent of his total at bats (Major League Baseball’s average strikeout rate is 18.6 percent). His walk rate of 12.1 percent is higher than average, so he has that going for him (which is nice), but he is just unable to make any contact right now. According to Fangraphs.com, he’s swinging at more pitches inside and outside the strike zone than ever before. He’s making less contact swinging at outside pitches that previous years, but making more contact on pitches in the strike zone. That’s a scary proposition.

When he is able to make contact, his BABiP, line drive percentage, ground ball/fly ball rates and other underlying data are all normal, or within an acceptable plus-minus from career norms or league average, with one big exception: lack of power. Espinosa’s extra-base hit rate is 3.0 percent, well below his career average (7.9 percent) or major league average (7.5 percent). Not surprisingly, his lack of contact and lack of power have allowed him to plate just two of the 46 base runners he’s had the opportunity to.

So we know what the problem is. What’s the solution?

We’ve heard suggestions that Espinosa should give up switch hitting. On the surface, a .197/.270/.258 split against right-handed pitching might suggest that could be an option. But a deeper look reveals he strikes out at a higher rate right-handed (33.3 percent) than left-handed (29.3%percent), despite having marginally more success reaching base.

The Nationals have a lot invested in Espinosa. But if he isn’t hitting any better by the time Ryan Zimmerman comes back, it could be him instead of another switch hitter, Steve Lombardozzi (.293/.383/.341), who goes to the bench.

Dave Nichols covers the Nationals for District Sports Page. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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