Danny Espinosa fully understands why he is in Class AAA Syracuse, but it doesn’t make it any easier. He has spent the past six weeks trying to break free of the hitting troubles that plagued him for the better part of three seasons in the major leagues. There are stretches of improvement and then slumps. He continues to work to even out the extremes, to stay consistent and remain focused on his new hitting approach. After 170 at-bats over 47 games, he is hitting .200/.270/.268 with two home runs and 14 walks.
“Just getting back to what I used to do,” Espinosa said on Thursday, standing at his locker in the visitors’ clubhouse in Louisville. “Getting back to getting comfortable with how I feel. I worked with Troy [Gingrich, Syracuse’s hitting coach] in 2010 and I worked with him in 2009 in spring training and 2010 the whole season. I just have a comfort with Troy. I’m on the same page with him. I’m getting results here and there. I have spurts of it. But the toughest part is breaking three years of bad habits I created in the big leagues. At the times I’m going well, I trust it. I trust everything I do to prepare every day but then I get back into not trusting stuff.”
That in itself is a habit Syracuse Manager Tony Beasley believes Espinosa must break. Espinosa is too hard on himself when he fails, whether it is one at-bat or over an extended stretch. And once Espinosa finds comfort in a shortened swing, Beasley wants the infielder swinging aggressively at pitches and not reacting to defend certain parts of the strike zone.
“The thing that I’ve spoken to him more about is his mind-set,” Beasley said. “Controlling his mentality and thought process. Not allowing one tough at-bat to force his mind into a tailspin and affect him the rest of the game. He’s gotta get a short memory. If one pitch goes wrong or a close call he may disagree with, forget about it. Just minimize the game. He and I had a good conversation about that [Tuesday], about minimizing things and everything one pitch at a time.”
Espinosa has worked diligently with Gingrich to fix his mechanics. When he arrived at Syracuse on June 13 to rehab his fractured right wrist, with the idea he would stay to work on his hitting, Espinosa scrapped everything. He wanted to return to his swing and approach from 2009 and 2010, his best professional seasons. He hit .264/.375/.460 with 18 home runs at Class A Potomac in 2009 and .268/.337/.464 with 22 home runs combined across Class AA Harrisburg and Syracuse in 2010.
“I’ve never been a dead pull hitter,” Espinosa said. “I’ve always thought that if you react to a ball, you react to a ball. The best hitters try to stay up the middle and hit the ball where it’s pitched. I can’t get my contact point out so far in front that I’m susceptible to every off-speed pitch and at times I’m still that way. At times I don’t trust my approach and I swing at off-speed pitches with two strikes. When I trust my approach, I don’t chase at all. It’s just a matter of where I’m comfortable mentally and always trusting my approach to see the ball deeper and use the whole field instead of one-third of the field.”
Defensively, Espinosa has had no troubles. (“He’s outstanding,” Beasley said.) He has played 29 games at second base but also 19 games at shortstop for Syracuse. It was Espinosa who asked Beasley to get a few games there. He said he wanted to make sure he still got the repetitions at his natural position and, in the event of any injuries in the majors, he was prepared to fill in there if needed.
“Everyone knows that when you’re in the minor leagues you play for 30 teams, whether you say it out loud or not,” he said. “I enjoy playing shortstop. I came up a shortstop. I moved to second base out of necessity. My idea once I was optioned was that I need to show everyone that I still play there. Not to say that I was going to get traded or that’s what I was trying to do, but I enjoy the game at shortstop and I have fun. The game flows for me. It’s natural for me. … My thing was I talked to Beasley, if I can get a couple games at short to stay fresh on it, I’d like to stay fresh on it. Like I said, it was nothing to show everybody else in the world that I’m trying to do this or do that. I just wanted to stay fresh on it.”
At the plate, Espinosa’s current left-handed swing has him standing more upright. When he steps forward during his swing, his stride is quicker and shorter. He holds his hands closer to his body and near his chest. The reasoning? Gingrich believes Espinosa’s swing had gotten longer because he strode too much forward, which naturally caused him to pull his hands back further. As a result, Espinosa’s hands had further to travel to get to the ball.
“It gives you the impression that he is trying to catch up, so he swings harder, which gives the impression that he’s trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark,” Gingrich said. “We’re trying to get back to where he can actually afford to start a little bit later, which sounds kinda funny because you usually don’t know of people who start of a little bit later. But he can start a little bit later and that helps him with his timing in keeping his stride foot shorter and it keeps his hands a lot closer to his shoulders so comes out of his swing his path is larger.”
On Wednesday, against the Louisville Bats, he finished 1 for 3 in the first game of the doubleheader and his left-handed swing appeared visibly shorter, his body more upright in the batter’s box. He has gotten fewer at-bats from the right side of the plate, but that, too, has required some work.
Espinosa is still trying to minimize the dramatic highs and lows of his hitting. When he arrived at Syracuse, he said his wrist was still sore. Ten days into his time with the Chiefs, he was hitting .088 with 34 strikeouts in 68 at-bats. The joint then felt better and his hitting approach did, too, and he went 18 for 41 during one stretch. Now, he is back into a slide with a recent 8 for 37. Gingrich tries to nip any bad swings or approaches as soon as he sees them, even telling Espinosa in between at-bats what looked wrong.
(Espinosa also said that his left shoulder, where he has a torn rotator cuff, feels good and doesn’t believe he will need offseason surgery as long as he continues rehabbing.)
“It’s a habit he’s done for two and a half years of coming to the park and searching for what he is trying to do,” Gingrich said. “Maybe he has a good game and comes back to the park the next day and he tries to do the same thing but it’s completely different. Now he has a routine. He knows what he is trying to do. We keep our routine the same every day.”
Espinosa wants to be in the majors and not the minors, but understands that he still has plenty of work to do.
FROM THE POST
Mike Rizzo is promoted to team president and given a long-term extension, Adam Kilgore writes.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 5, Louisville 0: Danny Rosenbaum tossed 6 2/3 scoreless innings, walking only one and striking out six. Jeff Mandel and Mark Lowe combined to toss the final 2 1/3 scoreless innings. Jhonatan Solano went 2 for 4 with two RBI. Zach Walters and Danny Rosenbaum each drove in a run.
Harrisburg 3, Trenton 1: Robbie Ray allowed only one unearned run on five hits and two walks, while striking out eight over five innings. Richie Mirowski tossed two scoreless innings. Aaron Barrett notched the save and Ryan Perry his second save. Justin Bloxom went 2 for 4 and drove in two runs; Destin Hood added the other.
Potomac 6, Myrtle Beach 1: Ivan Pineyro tossed three innings and allowed only one run. He was piggybacked by Sammy Solis, who fired five scoreless innings for his first win as at Potomac. Billy Burns, Michael Taylor and Adrian Sanchez each notched two hits. Taylor drove in four runs, most on a three-run homer.
Potomac 4, Myrtle Beach 1 (7): Blake Schwartz allowed only one run on six hits over six innings and struck out six. Robert Benincasa notched his 11th save. Caleb Ramsey went 1 for 2 with two RBI.
Hagerstown 4, Kannapolis 1: Brett Mooneyham allowed only one run on four hits and walked one while striking out six over seven innings. He has a 7-3 record and lowered his ERA to 2.48. Derek Self earned his third save. Brandon Miller went 2 for 4. Mike McQuillan, Pedro Severino and Stephen Perez each drove in a run.
Lowell 7, Auburn 1: Deion Williams allowed seven runs on five hits and walked four over 2 1/3 innings. Isaac Ballou, Bryan Lippincott, Cody Dent and Matt Foat notched the team’s only hits.