Since they drafted him in 2008 and watched him quickly work his way through their minor league system, the Nationals have thought of Danny Espinosa as a hitter who could routinely post double-digit homer totals in the majors. But as his professional career has progressed, the switch-hitter had largely been doing that from one side of the plate.
Espinosa hit an impressive six homers in a September call-up last year, and four of those came as a left-handed batter. But that doesn't tell the whole story; Espinosa sees far more pitches as a left-hander because most pitchers are right-handed, and his OPS as a lefty was 162 points below his OPS as a righty. And beyond those small sample sizes, the Nationals coaches working with Espinosa knew he needed to improve from the left side to round out his game.
His six-RBI day in the Nationals' doubleheader sweep of the Brewers yesterday doesn't establish him as a complete switch hitter, by any means. But the game was a nice step in the right direction for Espinosa.
He pulled a three-run homer in the first game off Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo, and came back in the second game with a three-run triple, this one down the left field line, off reliever Kameron Loe. Both blasts came from the left side of the plate.
"We know what he can do from the right side, but he just gets better and better from the left side," manager Jim Riggleman said. "He's got a lot of runs batted in to this point in the season from the left side. That (triple) was a huge one right there."
Espinosa is naturally right-handed, so his swing from that side of the plate, with his right hand on top and pulling the bat through the strike zone, will probably always be more comfortable than his swing from the left. He said it usually takes him longer to get his lefty swing working, simply because a left-hand-on-top swing gives him less margin for error when his timing is off.
"Right-handed, it's easier for me, because if my timing's off a little bit, my top hand is going to be there," he said. "Obviously, I'm not left-hand dominant, so sometimes it drags a little bit. But I've been feeling good, and working on my top hand a ton."
During his first full season in the minors, in 2009, Espinosa said his left-handed swing was better than his right-handed swing. That reversed early last year, as he began the year struggling from the left before pulling his average and power numbers up with a mid-season tear that coincided with his swing falling into place.
He's still only hitting .226 early this year as a lefty, though his seven walks and his key hits in RBI situations have helped that. In batting practice, Espinosa spends most of his time trying to establish the correct swing plane from the left side, hoping that will help him hit the ball the other way. So far this season, he's done that slightly better than he's pulled the ball from the left side - his batting average on opposite-field balls in play from the left side is .300, compared to a .286 BABP on balls he pulls from the left side. Especially against teams that play aggressive shifts like the Brewers did, Espinosa can find some room taking the ball to left.
"When I'm taking BP, I'm not trying to slice balls. I'm not trying to get underneath them," Espinosa said. "I'm trying to stay on top and hit low line drives. If I do pull some balls, and if I can drive some balls in BP, I want to feel I'm on top of the ball."
If there's a switch-hitter for Espinosa to emulate, he said it's the Braves' Chipper Jones, who is one of the most complete hitters from both sides of the plate in the history of the game. Jones has a .955 OPS from the right side, but drops to just .903 from the left, and his batting average is a point better from the left than the right.
Because he doesn't have an obvious weakness, Jones becomes an especially tough matchup for opposing managers in late innings, as they try to set up their bullpen against him. That's the type of weapon Espinosa would like to become.
"I always want my averages on the left and right to be pretty similar, and the same with my power," he said. "Left-handed, I'll probably hit for more power just because I have more at-bats, but my goal is to always keep them as close as I can."