David Huzzard: The Espinosa-Lombardozzi debate isn’t much of one at all

The Danny Espinosa/Steve Lombardozzi debate highlights many fascinating aspects of baseball fandom. It is tools vs. grit, slash line vs. batting average, and strikeouts vs. productive outs. The main issue is that in every meaningful category for their careers, Espinosa is a better player.

Look at the two slash lines. Espinosa, for his career, is at .236/.311/.407 and Lombardozzi is at .273/.314/.352. While the increase in contact rate is aesthetically pleasing, it is close to meaningless because their OBP is so close. That .003 point advantage Lombardozzi has equates to two extra times on base over 600 plate appearances.

The other big difference between Lombardozzi and Espinosa is defense. When it comes to second base defense there are few as good at it as Espinosa. In many ways, this is the part of the game that is most ignored. Espinosa is taking a lot of heat for the Nats’ offensive woes over their last several games, but no one has mentioned the multiple double plays he has been a part of or the difficult plays he makes look routine.

Espinosa has such range at second that he covers the area from behind the second base bag to the grass in short right field. Few notice his great defensive plays because he makes them standing up, and it looks routine. According to advanced stats over 150 games, Espinosa would save five runs over Lombardozzi’s defense at second, and over the past two seasons, that is up to nearly 10 runs.

The reason that this debate is even happening now, though, is that Espinosa is off to his second straight slow start. In 2012, Espinosa ended April with an OPS of .569, and so far in 2013, he has an OPS of .525. It isn’t good, but it isn’t his true talent level either.

After April and before the injury at the end of September, Espinosa batted .263/.325/.435. As Espinosa is only a third-year player, it is hard to say what his true talent level is, but that .760 OPS for most of last season and his .737 OPS in his rookie season of 2011 seem to indicate it is somewhere in the .750 range. To understand why this is good, consider that a league average second baseman is around a .714 OPS. When Espinosa is hitting at his true talent level, he is an above average offensive player that plays elite defense for the position.

Lombardozzi, on the other hand, is a great utility player. His value comes in his ability to play multiple positions and give more than one player a day off during a week. As an offensive second baseman, Lombardozzi doesn’t cut it. He had a 2012 OPS of .671 and a career OPS of .666. Both are markedly below average. Combine the fact that the team would be suffering a defensive let down at a premier defensive position, and the move makes even less sense.

Espinosa and Lombardozzi both happen to be switch-hitters and both struggle from one side of the plate. Lombardozzi can’t hit left_handed pitching and Espinosa can’t hit right-handed pitching. But even with an OPS over 100 points below what he hits off of left-handers, Espinosa’s .692 is higher than Lombardozzi’s .689 vs. righties. Against left-handers, there is no debate. Espinosa, at .272/.343/.462, is vastly superior to Lombardozzi, at .255/.287/.304. When facing left-handers, there is no doubt that Espinosa should play, and while worse against right-handers, he is still statistically better than Lombardozzi.

Lot’s of people look at Lombardozzi and see a player that hits. It is true that he puts the ball in play at a high rate, but an out is an out. There is little difference in run value between a strikeout and any other type of out. Aside from putting the ball in play a lot, Lombardozzi as a bench player is having his at-bats controlled by a manager who knows how to get the most out of his bench. Off the bench, Lombardozzi is hitting .305/.379/.356, but as a starter he is exposed and is hitting .268/.304/.352. Give major league pitchers enough looks at a slap-hitting contact man and they will carve him up.

Espinosa may continue to struggle, but when a problem such as his, swinging at 46.1 percent of the pitches he sees out of the zone, it’s easy to diagnose the solution isn’t that far away. If Espinosa can play to his true talent level at the plate, he is one of the better second basemen in all of baseball.

Even with his poor April and injured September, he finished the 2012 season as the fifth-best second baseman in baseball according to fWAR. The problem is Espinosa has become the scapegoat for the Nationals’ 10-10 start, and fans are demanding something be done. Mike Rizzo is a more patient man than that, but if Espinosa has an OPS of .600 or below come June, then something will be done. But the long-term answer still won’t be Steve Lombardozzi.

David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. 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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