VIERA, Fla. — Danny Espinosa can still count the swings. He would arrive at the ballpark just after lunch, maybe sooner, as he thought a rookie should. Five rounds of early batting practice — that’s 25 swings. Regular batting practice, 30 more. He warmed up in the cage before games, so add another 25 hacks.
In college and the minors, Espinosa could not have worked so much. In the majors, there was always a coach to feed him soft toss, a bullpen catcher to throw him batting practice and a room full of monitors to watch film.
“It was there,” Espinosa said. “And I abused it.”
In his rookie year, Espinosa cemented his spot in the Washington Nationals’ infield for the foreseeable future, finished sixth in rookie of the year voting and hit more homers than any National except Michael Morse. But Espinosa derived little satisfaction from his first season, a year, he believes, lost to overworking and overanalyzing himself.
“I think there’s a ton to improve on,” Espinosa said. “That was a horrible year. I’ll never do that again. I won’t allow myself to do that again. I will never allow myself to overanalyze and critique everything I did to ruin my game.”
At Long Beach State and in the minors, Espinosa developed a pregame routine he became comfortable with. He would take batting practice with the rest of his team, then, just before the game, take roughly 10 swings in the batting cage by himself, just enough to feel warm for first pitch.
But in the majors, he found himself showing up early, every single day, and taking more swings. Coaches never told him to come, but he felt the need to prove himself and his work ethic to older teammates.
“That’s how we feel,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “You kind of feel obligated when you’re a rookie to do all the extra work. You don’t want to rub anyone the wrong way. It’s the same exact thing I went through.”
At the all-star break last season, Espinosa was hitting .242 with 16 home runs and 52 RBI. Teammates touted his candidacy for the all-star game. Espinosa envisioned finishing the year at .260, with another dozen or so homers and well above 70 RBI.
After the break, though, his constant work wore him down, more mentally than physically. Even when hitting well in games, if he mis-hit one ball hours before game time, he obsessed over why. And, as a switch hitter, he had to consider his swing from both sides of the plate.
“That’s way too many swings for me to maintain a whole season,” Espinosa said. “For me personally, I can’t do that.”
Espinosa hit .227 in the second half, with just five home runs and 14 RBI. When he struggled, he tried to work himself out of slumps, which only buried him in a deeper hole.
“Now that I have a year, I will get more into a routine of my own,” Espinosa said. “I feel more comfortable. I don’t feel like I’m on edge in every little thing I do.”
Espinosa still has areas he wants to improve. Last year, Espinosa hit .223 as a left-handed hitter, but .283 from the right side. Espinosa, who had better numbers from the left side in the minors, wondered why.
This spring, teammate Mark DeRosa approached Espinosa and told him, “you got a little loop in your left-handed swing.” Espinosa knew what he meant. Instead of swinging straight at the ball from the left side, the barrel of his bat went backward first. It made his swing longer, with a slight uppercut, which threw off his timing.
Espinosa also had a tendency to “muscle” his swing from the left side, hitting coach Rick Eckstein said.
“You squeeze his hand, it’s like grabbing a cinder block,” Eckstein said. “He’s got to realize when he’s easy, it’s lightning.”
He may also benefit from moving further away from the surgery he had in 2010 to remove the hamate bone from his right hand. He never complained about the effects, and said he would not use it as an excuse. But he admits he felt “fatigue” in the hand at times last season, and it feels significantly stronger this spring.
“You’re controlling the bat better,” Espinosa said. Most important, Espinosa will also control himself before the game. He feels more secure now. He will no longer focus on the five bad swings out of 90, or trudge to the batting cage at 11 p.m. after a night game, or race to the film room.
“I know what I need to do,” Espinosa said. “I know what prepares me. I’m not going to go out and do stuff that I don’t feel I need to in order to prepare myself.
“If you don’t have a good game, if I didn’t do this, you want to be like, ‘I need to go out and work hard. I need to do more.’ Sometimes, it’s by doing less.”