Prior to the Nationals' exhibition game against the Yankees on Friday, with spring training all but over, I asked Danny Espinosa when the last time was that his left-handed swing had felt as good as it currently does.
"More than two years," Espinosa responded. "Since I've been in the big leagues. By far."
When Dr. Lewis Yocum, perhaps the leader in treatment for shoulder and elbow injuries among athletes, told Espinosa this offseason that he felt the Nationals second baseman could rehab his torn rotator cuff and play through the injury, Espinosa knew that was the right way to go. Dr. Yocum is a trusted source among players, and beyond that, had Espinosa opted to undergo surgery to repair the rotator cuff, he would've needed to miss around two months of the regular season.
Still, Espinosa needed to go out and play through the injury to know whether Dr. Yocum's advice was sound. So far, so good on that front.
Over a team-high 78 at-bats this spring, Espinosa posted a slash line of .333/.358/.474, well up across the board from his 2012 numbers of .247/.315/.402. Last year, his strikeout rate was 28.7 percent. This spring, it was 18.5 percent. Spring couldn't have gone much better for the switch-hitting Nationals second baseman, not just because of the results, but because of how he felt when in the batter's box, especially when hitting left-handed.
"It felt like (I was) in college, felt like I was in high school again," Espinosa said. "I'm not talking about the pitchers, it feeling simple, but my swing feeling simple, my swing feeling easy. Even some times last year when I was hitting the ball well, I never felt completely at ease. I felt at ease every at-bat (this spring). Just confident, smooth, easy, not trying to do too much, and that's how I used to feel left-handed. That's how I feel right-handed at times - just confident, easy. And to have that feeling left-handed was just a great feeling."
While Espinosa has been solid as a right-handed hitter during his big league career, it's his results from the left side of the plate that have frustrated fans and perplexed scouts. Espinosa's career batting average in the big leagues is 49 points lower left-handed than it is right-handed, and his on-base percentage is 40 points lower.
Over the last couple years, Espinosa noticed his left-handed swing path changing. Instead of using his powerful hands to whip through the strike zone, letting them drive the swing, he says he was using his legs too much, and his back side was dropping, resulting in a long, uppercut type of swing. Largely thanks to an offseason approach he learned when rehabbing the shoulder, Espinosa has now focused on hitting hard ground balls and line drives, driving towards the ball and attacking it with his hands.
"That's what's helping me this year," Espinosa said. "I'm getting myself in better counts because I'm attacking the ball and I'm ready to hit and I'd go, 'Oh, bad pitch.' Last year, at times, I'd try to see the ball first and react and then I'd be jumpy or I'd be late. Everything would mess up in my swing because I was trying to hit the ball the wrong way. ...
"Everyone said maybe it was a blessing in disguise that I couldn't lift hard this offseason because of my shoulder, that I had to rehab and had to do smaller things to focus more on baseball things and not on lifting and getting strong. And it could be that. The last two years, everything was power, power, power, and I was never a power hitter growing up. I ran into that when I got to pro ball. For whatever reason, I don't know why, in pro ball I started driving the ball. I don't even know why in the last two years, my swing dropped the way it did.
"My shoulder had been bothering me for a couple years, and I think I told you guys, I had mentioned to them, even at the beginning of last year, 'Hey, I want to get my shoulder checked out. There's something wrong.' And so just to feel healthy, to have the confidence to know that I'm all right, that I can do it, mentally, is probably the biggest deal. I know right now left-handed that I can go out there and I feel like I can hit anybody. That's how I feel. So when mentally, you're in that mindset, that's probably the biggest thing you need in baseball is the mindset to go up there and know that you can compete with anybody."
And for a guy who is incredibly hard on himself when he fails, a guy who used to watch and re-watch tape of his unsuccessful at-bats searching for the reason for his failure in that moment, that confidence can be a major factor.
The results in spring training obviously mean absolutely nothing and it's a new ballgame, so to speak, starting tomorrow. And while Espinosa's shoulder feels great now, there's always a chance he lands on it wrong or tweaks something, and surgery is then required. But Espinosa says he doesn't go into opening day this year wondering whether his shoulder is healthy. He isn't questioning his swing or the approach that he's taking at the plate. He says he feels like himself again.
"I've always, my whole life, been a better left-handed hitter," Espinosa said. "So the last two years, struggling left-handed, it was like I didn't know what was going on. So, yeah, to just have the confidence to go out there left-handed and drive the ball again, and with ease, not swinging hard, not striking out a lot. I feel great. So it did give me confidence, yeah.
"Obviously, am I going to hit .390 or whatever it was (this spring)? No. But it showed what I'm capable of, a short stint of what possibly could happen, yeah."