Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Davey Johnson offers instruction to Danny Espinosa at today's workout.
There's nowhere Espinosa would rather be than the ballfield. Unless he's in the batting tunnel, taking swing after swing long after a game has ended. Or maybe in the video room til midnight, dissecting every one of his at-bats, trying to find a fatal flaw in his swing.
Trouble is, sometimes too much work can damage your game. Hard as that may be for guys like Espinosa to understand, it's often the truth.
"You don't have to hit 500 balls down in the cage after gametime to be able to perform," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "I think sometimes you can lose an edge or get a little rusty. But they're so driven, sometimes that's what they do."
It's what Espinosa did much of last summer, as his once-promising rookie season began to spiral out of control. A legitimate All-Star candidate on pace for a 30-30 season at the end of June, he fell apart over the season's second half, at one point going 126 plate appearances without hitting a home run and producing a pathetic .209 slugging percentage over that span.
The young second baseman had never struggled like this during his playing career, not at Long Beach State and not in the minors. So he began to overanalyze everything, working until the wee hours of the morning trying to figure out how to fix his swing.
Finally, one night in early September, Johnson approached Espinosa in the video room and offered a surprising, yet simple, message: Go home. Right now.
"He's like, just get out of here," Espinosa recalled today. "Go home and just clear your mind, come back here and swing. You have too much talent to come in here and break your swing down and then go out there and try to fix something. You have natural ability. Just go out there and play."
It defied every urge Espinosa had in his workaholic body, but who was he to question his World Series-winning manager?
"I just need to trust my own abilities," he said. "I need to stop getting in the video room and stop nitpicking things. Because that's what I did last year. I was starting to get hot at the All-Star break, and then I fell off. I was just nitpicking my swing. I had a little hitch in my swing, and my strikeouts in the second half went through the roof. I overanalyzed everything. I don't think they pitched me any differently, to tell you the truth. I just went into the video room and overanalyzed myself."
With a clear mind and a weight off his shoulders, Espinosa rebounded in September. Over his final 17 games, he hit .317 with a robust .517 slugging percentage, salvaging what still proved to be a quality rookie season.
Though he finished with a disappointing .236 batting average, he did club 21 homers with 29 doubles. And he still posted a .323 on-base percentage, an impressive figure considering the low batting average.
For all those reasons, Johnson appears confident enough to bat Espinosa near the top of his lineup this season. Though he hasn't finalized anything yet, the manager at this point intends to bat shortstop Ian Desmond first and Espinosa second.
It may not be a perfect solution for a Nationals club that last year received the worst on-base percentages in the majors out of its leadoff (.285) and No. 2 (.283) hitters. But Johnson believes it's the best solution he's got with this current roster.
Knowing his manager in firmly in his corner makes all the difference for Espinosa.
"I could hit 1, 8, 9. I really don't care," Espinosa said. "But to have the feeling of the manager having confidence that you can hit there -- that he wants you to hit there and it's not trial by error or they don't have anybody else to hit second -- just to have that confidence feels better for me wherever I'm hitting."
Espinosa has plenty of reasons to feel confident heading into this season. For one thing, he's already got his rookie year under his belt and feels comfortable as a big leaguer. He doesn't need to prove he belongs anymore.
"That's huge," he said. "Last year, I was just trying to work, work, work, work. Rather than being in my routine, doing what I needed to do. I know how to prepare for a game. I've been playing long enough. When I was in college, our coach let us prepare the way we wanted to prepare. In the minor leagues, I prepared the way I wanted to prepare. So I know how to prepare and get myself ready for a game.
"Last year, I almost was pushing myself. Maybe I didn't want to do it, but because I was young, I felt like I needed to be there, I needed to show I was still working hard. I was still doing that stuff. And I ended up playing 158 games. I was doing too much to try to play that many games. Even if you play 140 games, the amount of work I was trying to stick with was not good for anybody."
On top of that, Espinosa is confident he's 100 percent healthy again. Not that he wasn't healthy last year, but the lingering effects of surgery to remove the hamate bone from his right wrist following the 2010 season perhaps hindered his ability to control his bat when swinging from the left side of the plate.
Espinosa's left-right splits last season were unusually off. He hit .283 from the right side, just .223 from the left side.
"It's funny, because everyone thinks my right-handed swing has been better my entire life. That's not true," he said. "That's the first year I've ever hit better right-handed. So it's kind of funny to hear everybody say: 'Maybe he just learned his left-handed swing.' My left-handed swing has always been better. It's just that last year it was off."
It's only one week into spring training, so nobody wants to draw any conclusions quite yet. But so far the Nationals coaching staff is raving about how Espinosa looks in the cage and how he looks ready to take on the challenge of batting in the 2-hole all season.
Just as long as he can remember it's OK to put down the bat and turn off the TV sometimes and leave his struggles at the ballpark.
"He's an overachiever, and he's tremendously strong, tremendously gifted," Johnson said. "I just want him to to relax and do the things he can do. He's very special."