Amid the prodigious numbers that made him a candidate for the All-Star Game - and keep him in Rookie of the Year conversations - it’s easy to forget that Danny Espinosa is playing a new position. It’s easy to forget he logged just seven minor-league games at second base before debuting with Washington in September. And with his remarkable first game at Nationals Park, a 4-for-5 outing with two homers and six RBI, Espinosa’s conversion from shortstop was the furthest thing from mind.
But it was Davey Johnson’s foremost concern during spring training, when the now-manager served as an instructor and took special interest in the rookie manning his former position.
“In spring, I was with him every day,” Espinosa said. “He always came out to second base to talk to me about different things. He taught me a lot when I was in camp and did as much as he could to help me and make me feel comfortable at the position.”
Espinosa said all they talked about was defense, reactions to one situation after another, and the different approach required at second base. “When you come over from shortstop you, want to be quick, too quick,” Espinosa said. “All you’re thinking is get the ball and get rid of it. [Johnson] always said when I’m practicing I should slow things down.”
Judging by the pace of his progress, “slow” isn’t in Espinosa’s gearbox.
Entering Monday’s 5-4 victory against the Chicago Cubs, Espinosa led National League second basemen in assists, double plays and double plays started. He ranked sixth in fielding percentage but was ranked second in Ultimate Zone Rating, an advanced defensive measurement. The Cubs got a taste of his glove in the ninth, when Espinosa started a nifty double play, and again in the 10th, when he ranged into the grass and squared himself for a strong throw to retire a speedy runner.
“I love playing defense and pride myself on my defense,” he said. “It’s fun to get an RBI and hit home runs and that sort of stuff. But taking a hit away or turning a hard double play is something I love, because it kills rallies on the other side and takes the air out of them.”
Position switch or not, the Nationals expected him to deflate opponents. But no one counted on the pace at which he’s pulverized baseballs, the reason he could become the NL’s first second baseman to win ROY since Steve Sax in 1982.
Espinosa leads all NL rookies in home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, total bases, extra-base hits and runs. He leads the Nats in RBI (48) and is tied with Michael Morse for the team-lead in home runs (15). In fact, Espinosa has turned in a historic, unprecedented first half: His 15 homers are the most ever by a rookie second baseman before the All-Star break.
He provided a hint of his power with 28 homers combined between the minors and majors in 2010, including his red-hot start in September. In his first 16 at-bats with Washington, Espinosa had nine hits, 10 RBI and three homers. Expecting such ratios to continue would’ve been unrealistic, and Espinosa indeed has struggled with his batting average (.243) and strikeouts (77).
But if you really want to get Espinosa fired up, suggest that he’ll never measure up to fellow former shortstops from Long Beach State, Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria and Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki, both bigger and taller with higher batting averages and lower strikeout numbers.
Espinosa has been weighed against them ad nauseum, yet doesn’t mind the unfavorable comments.
“I’ve always had the comparison, called a poor man’s this or a poor man’s that,” he said. “A lot of people always want to point out my downside or whatever. That’s fine. I always use it as fuel to prove every single day that I belong here.
“It’s great to have my name in the same sentence [with Longoria and Tulowitzki]. But I want to be a great ballplayer and push myself to, hopefully, have people one day compared to myself. There’s no other reason to play except to be the greatest you can be.”
Halfway through the first step, there’s no telling if he’ll ever reach his goal.