To get to the major leagues, a prospect’s swing has to pass through spring camps and fall leagues, level adjustments and coaches’ suggestions. There are fourth opinions and second guesses, rounds of, “Why don’t you try this?” and bouts with, “Why isn’t this working?”
Through his time in high school and at Long Beach State, Danny Espinosa had never used a leg kick in his swing. The Nationals took the shortstop in the third round of the 2008 MLB draft, and when they put him at Single-A Vermont after signing him, they had him learn to incorporate the move.
And it worked. Espinosa hit .328 with a .835 OPS in 19 games at Vermont, finding himself better able to gather his movements and load his swing for a smoother, cleaner stroke. He took that swing to Single-A Potomac in 2009, hitting 18 homers and driving in 72 runs with it. Espinosa and Potomac hitting coach Jerry Browne liked the results they were seeing and the groove Espinosa found. Rick Eckstein, the former Triple-A hitting coach then in his first season on the big-league job, signed off on the swing. But Ralph Dickenson, then the Nationals’ minor-league hitting instructor, had different ideas.
“Jerry and I, we couldn’t step on his toes or anything, so we didn’t know what to do,” Espinosa said. “So we had to make the changes. I struggled to make those changes, because I was doing well with my leg kick.”
Espinosa kept hitting, but there was a problem: His power was gone. He struck out 129 times in 133 games at Potomac, and in an effort to cut down on those strikeouts, he’d gone to a punchier swing that resulted in a .345 average in the Arizona Fall League, but only one homer and seven extra-base hits in 24 games. Espinosa, who is 6-foot-0, 190 pounds and has some natural pop, was slapping singles. And worse yet, his strikeout totals went up; he fanned 20 times in 24 games in Arizona.
“With (the leg kick), he had a nice year for himself,” Eckstein said. “There were times he found himself in an area he felt he needed to work on. In the process, he created a different type of load.”
When the 22-year-old arrived at minor league camp this year, he found a remade front office, a fresh group of minor league coaches and a renewed interest in getting back to the swing that put Espinosa in the middle of the organizational spotlight last season.
Eckstein, who keeps video on hitters beyond what the organization keeps, and several of the Nationals’ executives made a mini-presentation to Espinosa, showing him footage from last season, suggesting he’d consistently get in a better hitting position with the leg kick. And the shortstop jumped on board.
“It wasn’t like this huge transformation,” Eckstein said. “It’s just the way a hitter gets ready, and he responded really well. He felt much better, or so he said. He felt much better and had a much better focus.”
Espinosa is back to the leg kick this spring, and back to feeling like himself. His timing at the plate is better and his strikeouts are down, he says. He’s stinging the ball again. He’s reached his goal of starting the year at Double-A Harrisburg, and he could be a year away from taking his swing to the major leagues.
The Nationals awarded the starting shortstop job to 24-year-old Ian Desmond this week, but Espinosa - who was the shortstop successor at Long Beach State to big-league stars Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki - isn’t thought to be all that far away. With shortstop Cristian Guzman eligible for free agency after the season and second baseman Adam Kennedy’s return subject to a club option, Espinosa could wind up competing for the shortstop or second base job next season.
He might be more polished defensively than Desmond, and stole 29 bases at Potomac last season. Though there are further refinements for Espinosa to make on his swing, he’s put himself in position to possibly reach the majors with a September call-up.
“I guess it’s a big year, but I try not to think about it, because the second I start putting pressure on myself to do better and saying, ‘If I can do better, I’ll go up, I’ll get to play with Desmond or I’ll get to play with whoever, that’s when I’m going to start struggling,’” Espinosa said. “I’m not one guy that can do that. I just need to go out there and play my own game.”
Espinosa sounds almost relieved at the lack of clutter around him this year. Harrisburg hitting coach Troy Gingrich, minor league hitting coordinator Rick Schu and Eckstein are all proponents of the leg kick. They e-mail video of Espinosa back and forth, and if the shortstop is promoted to Triple-A Syracuse, the video will go along with him.
The kick itself is modest: “I’m not trying to do a Darryl Strawberry knee-to-the-chest,” Espinosa said, but it’s allowed him to time his arrival to the hitting zone better. He works with Schu on the swing each day in the batting cages, and the message is succinct and direct: Get yourself in a good position and hit.
“Rick (Schu) has simplified it a lot. He doesn’t try to clone anybody,” Espinosa said. “He works with what your stance is and what you have. He just says, ‘Wherever you’re going to start, you just need to end up, when you’re at contact point, in a strong position.’ I don’t want to over-think. When you’re in there hitting, and he’s just saying simple things like that, it’s easy to get going and get your bat path consistent.”
Espinosa has also benefitted from a close association with the Rays’ Longoria and the Rockies’ Tulowitzki, who both worked out with him at various points during his college career. He played a year with Longoria, but actually talks to Tulowitzki more often. Even their message is on point with what Espinosa hears from the Nationals’ coaches: Hitting is easiest when it’s simplest.
That approach will get its next round of challenges at Harrisburg this year, when the Nationals will look for Espinosa to cut down his strikeouts, continue drawing walks and driving the ball the other way. To start the season, though, Espinosa is in as good a place as he could ever hope to be. And he’s found faith in the Nationals’ system to keep him there.
“All the coaches are on the same page,” Espinosa said. “They all know what they want me to do. I trust they have my best interests.”