Danny Espinosa And The Dreaded Sophomore Slump

Danny Espinosa is not off to a good start to the 2012 season. This is no secret as he is batting .194/.292/.245 compared to his rookie line of .236/.323/.414. The biggest question Nats fans have is, what should be done to fix this?

The best answer might be that there is nothing drastic that needs to be done. When a baseball player slumps it is more than likely due to the league making an adjustment to them. The league has discovered that Espinosa has trouble laying off pitches low and out of the strike zone. The response of pitchers around the league is to get ahead of Espinosa and throw him that exact pitch, and until he starts laying off of it they will continue to do so.

The responsibility now lies with Espinosa to make the adjustment to recognize that pitch better out of a pitcher’s hand. There are some thoughts that Espinosa could use some time in the minors, but that might not be the best idea unless all he needs is a confidence boost. The pitchers in AAA will have the same book on Espinosa but may lack the ability to throw the precise pitch Espinosa struggles with, and every baseball fan knows what happens to hanging breaking balls.

The reason that the minors might not do Espinosa any good is quite simple. The pitchers at the Triple-A level might not be able to throw the low breaking ball with the same consistency that the pitchers at the major league level can, and if Espinosa stops seeing the pitch then he cannot hope to make an adjustment to it. The best thing for Espinosa is for the Nationals to allow him to work out his issues at the major league level, and he isn’t the only player to suffer a sophomore slump, or even the only player this season.

Breaking down Espinosa’s struggles the first number that pops out are his 34 strikeouts which is the most in the NL. Danny Espinosa has had 57 plate appearances in which he has had two strikes against him. Out of those 57 plate appearances the ball has ended up in play only 14 times or 24% of the time. The percent of time an average MLB batter will put the ball in play with two strikes against them is 52% of the time. That is one obvious area in which Espinosa needs to improve in, but improvement may not be that difficult.

In his rookie season, Espinosa swung at 29.6% of pitches out of the strike zone compared to 36.1% of the time in 2012. Overall Espinosa’s swing percent has increased from 46.5% to 50.1% while his out of zone contact percent has decreased from 61.6% to 57.0%. His contact percentage on pitches in the zone has remained roughly the same. Espinosa is simply swinging at too many pitchers’ pitches and the best way for him to start getting back on track is to stop swinging at those pitches and force the pitcher to throw him something in the zone. 

In 2011 the top five position player rookies by WAR with 350 plate appearances or more were Espinosa, Wilson Ramos, Dustin Ackley, Mark Trumbo, and Darwin Barney. The early season struggles of both Espinosa and Ramos are well known to Nationals fans and Trumbo is doing anything but struggling on offense. The best player to look at to see how Espinosa’s struggles are not isolated just to the Nationals is fellow second baseman Ackley.

In 2011 Ackley batted .273/.348/.417. To start 2012 Ackley is batting .239/.310/.342. This is a large drop from a good rookie campaign. Ackley’s struggles are not nearly as bad as Espinosa’s but they go to prove a point that Espinosa is not the only player in baseball this season suffering through a sophomore slump.

Take for example Paul Goldschmidt who coming into the series against the Nationals was batting .193/.288/.281 down from his rookie level of .250/.333/.474. After the series against the Nationals concluded Goldschmidt had raised his batting line to .246/.321/.348. It is important to remember that it is still early enough in the season where one good series can do wonders in starting to get a player on the right track.

All three of Espinosa, Ackley, and Goldschmidt are suffering sophomore slumps to start the 2012 season, but 2012 isn’t the only year players have suffered through sophomore slumps. It is informative to look back at past rookies and see how their performance dropped off from their rookie season to their sophomore season.

The top five position player rookies from 2010 by WAR were Jason Heyward, Austin Jackson, Buster Posey, Ike Davis, and (Giancarlo) Mike Stanton. In 2011 Davis and Posey both got off to decent starts before getting hurt. Posey had a good OBP but his SLG dropped from .505 to .389 before the injury. Stanton improved on his rookie numbers, but Heyward and Jackson both suffered sophomore slumps similar to what Espinosa is suffering through right now.

Heyward’s totals dropped from .277/.393/.456 in 2010 to .227/.319/.389 in 2011. His numbers in April made it look like he was picking up right where he left off with a batting line of .263/.354/.525, but in May the league found a hole in his swing and he suffered through that month hitting .098/.229/.122 and ended up missing time in May and June due to a shoulder injury he battled off and on for the rest of the season.

Jackson like Heyward suffered through a sophomore season that wasn’t as good as his rookie campaign. In 2010 Jackson batted .293/.345/.400 and fell off in 2011 to .249/.317/.374. Unlike Heyward Jackson didn’t get off to a hot start. Like Espinosa and Ackley in 2012 he started off ice cold batting .181/.252/.257 in the month of April, but he did rebound in May by batting .269/.327/.413. Jackson made the proper adjustments as the year went a long but did suffer two other months with an OPS under .700, but none as bad as his awful April.

Both Jason Heyward and Austin Jackson have rebounded to start the 2012 season. Heyward in April of 2012 batted .273/.341/.442 and Jackson had an April batting line of .284/.376/.494. Heyward’s line looks to be right in line with his career averages if not slightly below, but still better than his overall 2011 stats. Jackson’s hot start to 2012 looks like it could be just that, a hot start, but a hot start is better than a cold one.

The Nats closest neighbor to the north, the Baltimore Orioles, had a player of their own suffer through a sophomore slump a couple years back. When Matt Wieters was drafted he was labeled by some as the next great baseball player, a switch hitting catcher with a strong throwing arm and power from both sides of the plate. In 2009 he burst on the scene with a batting line of .288/.340/.412, but in 2010 his batting line dropped to .249/.319/.377.

Wieters never suffered through a truly terrible month, but his first half numbers in 2010 were not good. He batted .245/.315/.357 in the first half of 2010 compared to a second half batting line of .254/.324/.407. In 2011 his batting line rose to .262/.328/.450. Although that wasn’t back to his 2009 levels it was enough when combined with his defense to make him the highest rated catcher in baseball by WAR.

The list of players that have suffered through sophomore slumps is long and growing every season. There are success stories and failures alike, but it is important to understand that what is going on with  Espinosa is nothing unique.

The Nationals own Ryan Zimmerman had a modest sophomore slump falling off from a batting line of .287/.351/.471 in 2006 to .266/.330/.458 in 2007. In April of 2007 however Zimmerman batted .236/.288/.327. That .615 OPS in April of 2007 is more than .200 points lower than Zimmerman’s rookie OPS of .822, or roughly the same ratio as Espinosa’s April 2012 OPS of .569 is to his rookie season total OPS of .737.

None of this guarantees that Espinosa will get back on track or that this slump like most others in baseball will end, but it does demonstrate that a number of players have had similar struggles during their sophomore seasons. The best way for Espinosa to work out of his slump is to do so on the field. The Nationals allowed Ian Desmond to struggle through the first half of 2011 and he rewarded them by posting a second half batting line of .289/.338/.417 after posting a dismal first half line of .223/.264/.308.

Sophomore slumps don’t always lead to success stories, and most of the time it is because the team doesn’t have the patience to wait out the problem. Chris Coghlan in 2009 won the rookie of the year award behind a batting line of .321/.390/.460. In 2010 he battled a sophomore slump and injuries on route to a batting line of .268/.335/.383. In 2011 the Marlins tired of Coghlan’s continued slump and sent him to the minors in June after a first half batting line of .230/.296/.368.

The Marlins reluctance to let Coghlan work through his struggles at the major league level may have caused him to not be able to make the proper adjustments to get back to the talent level he displayed in his rookie season. In order for a baseball player to get over a slump they have to work it out on the field. Otherwise it will become more difficult for them to understand what weaknesses are being exposed by the top pitchers at the highest level.

Baseball players are going to slump. It is the nature of the game. The good players come out of slumps with a better understanding of their own weaknesses and how opposing teams are going to attack them. Danny Espinosa has shown the ability to make adjustments in the past. This is simply another adjustment period in what should be a long career for the Nationals’ second baseman.

David Huzzard is a guest columnist for The Nats Blog. Read more of his work at Blown Save, Win and follow him on Twitter @DavidHuzzard.