The Washington Nationals are a good team. They might even be a great team. The Washington Nationals also have a glaring flaw. Where a team would ordinarily have a starting second baseman the Nats have a huge, gaping hole.
Understandably, the entire focus of talk surrounding their offseason has been about when they would plug that hole. Last month I wrote a post detailing 50 possible candidates to take the job. A number of those players have found new teams since then, but none of those new teams have been the Nationals. Well, unless you count Dan Uggla, which you shouldn’t.
So here we are now a little over a month from spring training beginning, two months from the next season’s start and the Nationals have no starting second baseman. For some it seems patience has given way to a light form of Stockholm Syndrome that sees its victims wonder if maybe having Danny Espinosa as the starter isn’t so bad after all. Sadly, two of my friends, Frank Lattuca from Nationals 101 and Joe Drugan from The Nats Blog, can be counted among the afflicted. Frank and Joe first began displaying symptoms when discussing the second base job on a special podcast. Joe then expertly summed up the thought process in a blog post Saturday.
You should listen to and read both, but in the interest of time I’ll summarize the argument here. First, that Espinosa is an excellent defender whose glove can make up quite a bit for a deficient bat. And second, that the bat isn’t quite as deficient when compared to the average eight hole hitter. All together it is not a bad argument, because for the most part it is true.
To start, Espinosa is a very good defender. Over the last three years combined, the recommended sample size for UZR, Espinosa has ranked eighth among second baseman in UZR, saving 13.1 runs more than the average second baseman. And as Benjamin Franklin very nearly said “a run saved is a run earned.” Espinosa will likely never be a below replacement level player when healthy because of his glove.
The sticking point is with the bat, as it always is with Espinosa. Last season, Espinosa had a wRC+ of 75, meaning that he was 25 percentage points worse than a league average hitter and 13 percentage points worse than the league average second baseman. However, as Joe points out the league average wRC+ for a player batting in the eight spot in the lineup was 83. Of course Joe makes a small error here by including the American League. Obviously when you get an extra very good hitter in a DH the quality of the eighth hitter is much better than if the pitcher is batting. When limited to just the National League, the average wRC+ of an eight hole hitter was 73, below Espinosa’s 75.
Well that’s all good then, last season Espinosa was two percentage points better than the NL average eight hole hitter, so Joe and Frank are right in that he would be a fine starter. Well, not so fast. There are a couple problems with so simple a comparison. For starters, take a look at this chart of the platoon split of Espinosa’s plate appearances over the last four seasons.
|vs. RHP||vs. LHP|
The issue is quickly apparent, last season Espinosa had a lot more plate appearances against left handed pitching relative to right handed pitching compared to previous seasons. To better illustrate I’ve taken the percentage of his plate appearances that came against right handers over these seasons and included the league’s percentage as well, not including pitchers.
|% RHP||NL % RHP|
That’s a fairly substantial change and suggests two things. One, that Matt Williams did an excellent job keeping Espinosa from being exploited by his platoon disadvantage too much. And two, that Espinosa’s overall numbers were propped up by such usage and would not be as good had he had a normal starter’s split. To get a small idea of the benefit we can adjust his number of right handed plate appearances to the league percentage and calculate what his new overall batting line would be.
If we take the 74.8 percent for the league in 2014 and keep the number of plate appearances versus lefties at 115, Espinosa would have had 342 plate appearances against righties. Using his 2014 rates for each batting event per plate appearance against righties we can multiply that by the 342 plate appearances to get his adjusted platoon numbers. From there they can be combined with his numbers versus lefties and then we can calculate his wOBA, wRAA and finally his wRC+. Doing so creates an adjusted wRC+ of 71, not a large difference, but one that does place him below the talent level of the average NL eight hole batter.
Still, that was a very simplified calculation and it is possible that Espinosa’s true talent lies somewhere equivalent to the average eight hole hitter. However, even if that is the case it is a fatal misreading of the context in which the concept of the average eight hole hitter is placed. The average eight hole hitter isn’t a player who bats eighth everyday, it’s a player that happens to be batting eighth on some day.
In other words, teams have injuries, players take days off and miss games. That is a standard part of an 162 game season. When that happens, the fill in will usually slot in at the back of the order, since fill ins by definition aren’t going to be as good as the starters. Last season the Nationals had 13 different players bat eighth at least one day. And of the bench players Espinosa was one of the better hitters. Only Tyler Moore had a higher wRC+ among Nats bench players with at least 50 plate appearances.
So if a player fills in for a starter they’re now batting eighth and Espinosa is pushed up to the seven spot, where the NL average wRC+ was 93. Another injury and you now have Espinosa at six, where the average wRC+ was 94, an even worse hitter at seven and an even worse hitter at eight. The quality of the lineup quickly deteriorates.
Espinosa is a perfect player for the Nationals bench. He can play either middle infield position well, can smash lefties and can be a medium-term fill in if a starter goes down. Unfortunately, that’s about all he is now unless he can figure out what he did in 2011 and 2012 when he had wRC+s of 94 and 87 against righties. That Danny Espinosa was a quality starter, worth 3.2 and 3.3 wins above replacement according to FanGraphs. This Danny Espinosa is a valuable bench player who the Nats control for three more years. But he isn’t a starter and Mike Rizzo knows that, otherwise he wouldn’t have traded for Asdrubal Cabrera last year.