The view from the left-handed batter’s box at Space Coast Stadium can make hitting seem unfair. The batter’s eye in center field – the big, green wall that gives hitters a backdrop – does not extend as wide as most. To the right, there is at least signage. To the left, there is none, and that is where the ball seems to come out of for a left-handed hitter.
“There’s no backdrop when you hit left-handed,” said the Nationals’ Danny Espinosa, a switch-hitter. “You get no hitter’s eye.”
The conditions allow Espinosa to explain away his recent dismal spring training numbers. After going 0 for 3 with a walk and three strikeouts in the Nationals’ 3-2 win over the Marlins, Espinosa has 10 strikeouts and four hits in his last 16 at-bats. The strikeouts have piled up this spring, 23 in 63 at-bats compared to six walks.
Tonight, Espinosa flailed late at fastballs and early at breaking balls from Marlins ace Josh Johnson. Afterward, he took solace in knowing once the season starts, he will not have to concern himself with batter’s eyes that are too small.
“I’m not concerned about it,” Espinosa said. “I’m having a hard time seeing the ball. You ask any hitter, if you’re not seeing the ball well, you’re not going to hit it well. That’s the bottom line. I’ve been hitting the ball on the road. It’s just a simple thing, not seeing the ball.”
If you look at Espinosa’s home-road splits, his claim makes perfect sense. At Space Coast Stadium, Espinosa is hitting .200/.273/.225 with 17 strikeouts in 40 at-bats. On the road, Espinosa is hitting .304/.360/.348 with six strikeouts in 23 at-bats. At home against right-handed pitches, when he bats left-handed, Espinosa is 3 for 29.
“My swing actually feels good,” Espinosa said. “It feels like it’s a lot shorter this year. When you’re not picking the ball up and you’re guessing, you’re trying battle through, be patient, not guess at pitches. It’s just a battle. I go out there and try to make it better every day.”
Manager Davey Johnson has talked to Espinosa about his performance and told him, “Don’t worry about it,” and that his swing has improved since last year. Espinosa did not show much outward frustration, but admitted he does not easily dismiss his results.
“It definitely gets frustrating,” Espinosa said. “You don’t want to be embarrassed. No one wants to be embarrassed. It definitely gets frustrating. You want to go out and play well. I try to put good at-bats. But at the same time, I know if I’m not seeing the ball, I’m fighting as much as I can to give myself a chance to see the ball well. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t at this field.”
After Espinosa’s first at-bat, he sat on a stool next to Johnson outside the Nationals’ dugout. They had a lively conversation, Johnson imploring Espinosa to relax at the plate.
“Don’t get over-wrapped-up in your mechanics,” Johnson said. “Start timing the ball and be comfortable and be aggressive.”
Johnson has told both Espinosa and leadoff man Ian Desmond they should not approach their at-bats like typical 1-2 hitters, even if they are hitting at the top of the order. Tonight, Desmond smoked the first pitch Johnson threw over the left-center fence, into the wind.
“I’m up there ready to party,” Desmond said on MASN.
Desmond’s aggression has led to success lately. He’s boosted his spring on-base percentage to .329, having gone 15 for his last 36.
“They’re more than just table-setters,” Johnson said. “They’re run producers. They can be aggressive in the count early. By being more aggressive early in the count, they’ll get more walks, because pitchers aren’t just trying to get ahead. They’ll be more cautious. The type of player they are, I want them to express their talent and be aggressive. Desi’s doing that.”
Espinosa is not, at least right now, not with that view. The Nationals hope that’s the only cause, and they have reason to believe it is.