VIERA, Fla. — There is a batters eye in center field at Space Coast Stadium that stands 35 feet high. It’s the width, though, that many left-handed hitters have taken issue with this spring.
Plenty of the Nationals’ lefties have noted, particularly in day games (of which all but two are), that the ball from a right-handed pitcher seems like it’s coming out of the clouds.
“There’s just no backdrop,” said second baseman Danny Espinosa.
And Espinosa would know. A switch hitter, Espinosa has struggled mightily this season when hitting left-handed at home. Friday night, facing tough right-hander Josh Johnson, Espinosa struck out swinging in his first two at-bats against him and was sent down looking in the third.
In the meantime, Espinosa and Nationals manager Davey Johnson were spotted having an animated discussion in the dugout following one of his at-bats.
“I like everything about what I’m seeing,” Johnson told Espinosa. “Don’t get over-wrapped in your mechanics.”
Looking at Espinosa’s spring statistics as a whole, it might be easy to get worried. He has now struck out 23 times in 63 at-bats, but the second baseman was calm and collected when asked about it after Friday’s game.
“I’m not concerned about it,” he said. “I’m having a hard time seeing the ball here and if you ask any hitter if they’re not seeing the ball well they’re not going to hit well. That’s just the bottom line.”
Due to some diligent statistic work by CSN’s Mark Zuckerman, the stats wholly support what Espinosa and Johnson have been saying.
At home this season, Espinosa is hitting .200 (8-for-40) with 17 strikeouts in 40 at-bats. He has an on-base percentage of .273 and a slugging percentage of .225.
On the road, he’s hitting .304 (7-for-23) with just six strikeouts in 22 at-bats. His OBP at home is .360 and his slugging percentage is .348.
Those are dramatic splits, but if you break it down even further, Espinosa’s argument seemingly gets stronger (in spite of the small sample size with which all of this is conducted).
At home, when he’s hitting right-handed, and against left-handed pitching, Espinosa has far less trouble seeing the ball. “It’s way easier,” he said. And his stats also support that. Espinosa is hitting .412 this spring batting right-handed and just .174 left-handed.
And when he’s on the road, he has very little issue.
Against right-handers on the road, Espinosa is 5-for-17 (.294). At home, he’s 3-for-29 (.103).
All of this will mean little if Espinosa’s splits don’t level out during the regular season but, for now, he’s certainly got a plausible explanation for why his numbers have been so skewed despite feeling exceptionally good with his left-handed swing.
“It definitely gets frustrating because you don’t want to be embarrassed,” he said. “I try to put good at-bats together but at the same time if I’m not seeing the ball, I’m fighting as much as I can to give myself a chance to see the ball well and sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t at this field. It just kind of is what it is. I don’t look into it too serious. Davey’s talked to me about it and he said ‘I’m not worried about it.’ He’s confident in my swing, my swing’s a lot better than it was last year. It’s obvious on the road and here, he said don’t stress about it.
“When I go to another stadium where I see the ball I immediately click and I can pick up pitches a lot better. I try not to worry about it and I try to go out there and grind, if I’m not hitting the ball I’m going to play my defense every single day and make sure my defense is good.”