On a hot Memorial Day afternoon, Espinosa struck out the first two times he faced the reigning NL Cy Young winner, Roy Halladay of the Phillies. But his third time up, Espinosa looked for the same two-strike change-up with which Doc had fooled him his first time up. Espinosa blasted it into the right field bleachers for his eighth homer and 29th RBI, both team-leading totals that put him on a pace for 24 homers and 89 RBI.
The Nats lost, their ninth defeat in their last 11 games, despite three homers off Halladay. The bullpen blew a save that cost Livan Hernandez a possible win. And small-ball Manager Jim Riggleman’s record in one-run games fell to 5-12 as, somewhere, an Earl Weaver disciple must be muttering, “Play for one run early, lose by one run late.”
With Zimmerman hurt almost all season and Adam LaRoche out for a long time, too, the Nats are right back where they were last year — a 22-31 team. But there’s a difference now. This team isn’t headed to 22-51 like the ’09 disaster. Amid all the frustrations, there are signs of a different future, none clearer than Espinosa.
His homer off the game’s best pitcher was just the latest illustration of his cocky pride, his surprising power for a middle infielder and his resilience after failing. Espinosa also shows how baseball’s modern stats, in this case “batting average on balls in play,” illuminate the game in new and unequivocal ways that were unknown for a century.
Even though Espinosa is also second on the Nats in runs, extra-base hits and total bases, it’s widely assumed he’s in a slump, or hasn’t adjusted to the majors, because he’s hit just .208 since his call-up in ’10, even though he hit six homers last September.
As if he needed an ego boost, the Nats chat him up as a future Gold Glove candidate at second base as a way to deflect attention from that ugly average. His .988 fielding mark after 78 big league games at second would be one of the best ever if he kept it up.
But Espinosa’s low batting average is mostly a mirage. The rest of this season (maybe) and the rest of his career (definitely) will expose it as an illusion. One of the pleasures of modern baseball is that sometimes we can see just a bit of the future.
The average fan may not know BABIP from badaboom. But every GM does. Last year, the MLB batting average on balls in play — you exclude all at-bats that end with a home run or a strikeout — was .297. It is always about .300, give or take a little. You almost never find a player, over a career, who is outside the .280-to-.330 range. Why? Because hitters can’t precisely guide the balls they hit, so luck rules in the short term but probability dominates over a career. And you’re going to end up with a BABIP near .300. If you are speedy, like Espinosa, you’ll probably do a bit better. Middle infielders, usually quick, cluster around .310. In the minors, Espinosa’s BABIP was .323. Normal.
So, what’s his BABIP in 279 at-bats as a Nat? It’s .226. That’s off-the-charts low.
“What?” said Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo, who has based trades, in part, on the assumption that players would revert to the mean in BABIP. “That’s nuts.”
“I knew it,” said Espinosa before the game. “It feels like I’ve been hitting it at people all season, but I didn’t know for a fact. . . . I feel good up there, confident. Some I’ve hit hard and they haven’t gone in.”
Often, players blame themselves for what is just temporary bad hitting luck. Dan Uggla, signed to a mega-deal in Atlanta, has a .295 career BABIP. This year, he’s been even more cursed than Espinosa with a .190 mark that’s dragged his average down to .178. Uggla himself has blamed the pressure from his contract. No, Dan. Just chill. The bloops and bleeders will arrive. The liners will find gaps. They always do.
Here’s the payoff: How good will Espinosa be if, like almost every other player who ever lived, his BABIP gets back up around .300? It’s a simple calculation to figure out how unlucky he’s been. If Espinosa had a normal BABIP of .297 since he came up, he’d have 14 more hits, about five of them doubles.
How much would that change the way he is seen? With those 14 “lost” hits, his average would be .258 with an on-base percentage of .341 and slugging average of .502. How good is that? It’s an on-base-plus-slugging mark of .843. The career OPS of Jayson Werth, Zimmerman, Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter are .843, .841, .835 and .833.
Is Espinosa already that good? I doubt it. He’s hit an awful lot of homers — 14 already — in what amounts to half a season. Does he really have 25-to-30 home run power? That seems unreasonable. But his batting average is going to go up — a lot. And the power has always been there. He had 28 homers last year in all leagues combined.
On a team that’s staggering, a rookie like Espinosa brings a stream of surprise and pleasure to what can otherwise feel like a long summer of frustration. Watching him grow, wondering if all those “good luck” hits are really waiting for him, is part of the fun. “We haven’t seen the best of him yet,” said Riggleman.
That may prove to be an understatement.