May 29, 2017

Statistically Speaking: Should Espinosa ditch switch hitting?

[Eds. Note: “Statistically Speaking” is our new weekly feature, where we’ll delve into a particular aspect of the Nationals and really break down the essence of the issue in terms of statistical data. Typically, this will be performed by columnist Stuart Wallace (find his bio below), but Dave Nichols will pop up occasionally as well.]

The 2014 season is one that looms large in the career of Danny Espinosa. After a much-maligned 2013 season due to injury and ineffectiveness, Espinosa comes into the spring with a lot riding on him making strides offensively and coming north with the squad. Part of this success hinges on his ability to switch-hit and provide some pop from both sides of the plate, something he showed glimpses of in the 2010 through 2012 seasons, but remained elusive throughout a lost 2013, a season highlighted by a disappointing .206 weighted on base average (wOBA) and a -0.6 fWAR in 44 games with the Nationals.

Struggles notwithstanding, this projected pop is predicated upon the work that needs to be put in to maintain two swings and have them both remain synchronous throughout the year, impervious to extensive stretches of slumps and disharmony between both body and mind.

With his poor showing in 2013 came a number of suggestions as to how to ‘fix’ Espinosa and his swings, most leaning heavily upon the idea that he should scrap swings from one side of the plate and focus all of his efforts into one side of the plate, with the idea that the physical and mental demands of maintaining both swings would be drastically reduced by focusing on just one.

Adding to the melange of suggestions pointing to this quick fix was the success of Boston Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino had late in 2013 with jettisoning hitting from the left, due to injury concerns. Victorino enjoyed what seemed to be immediate success, being able to hit for both average and power focusing solely on batting from the right. While Victorino appears to be working towards a return to switch-hitting status full-time, his brief dalliance with simplifying matters was nonetheless a successful one.

Is it one that might help Espinosa regain some offensive value to go with his elite defensive prowess?

Let’s have a look at Espinosa’s career left-right splits as a hitter:

PITCH HAND

PA

wOBA

wRC+

BABiP

LD%

GB%

FB%

HR/FB

BB%

K%

vs. LHP

394

.344

116

.331

14.20%

47.80%

38.10%

12.80%

7.60%

25.10%

vs. RHP

1201

.294

82

.283

16.60%

45.80%

37.60%

12.90%

7.20%

27.70%

Not surprisingly, Espinosa has better success at the plate as a righthander, facing left-handed pitching, hitting 50 points better from the right, as measured by wOBA, than the left. Surprisingly, Espi doesn’t appear to have any egregious differences in line drive rate (LD%), or even home run per fly ball (HR/FB) or strikeout (K%) rates between hitting sides.

In many respects, it appears that Espinosa has a touch more luck facing lefties, as his above-.300 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) as a righty hitter points to; with no real differences in the types of batted ball between the splits, his career numbers lean towards balls finding a hole from the right more frequently than they do batting lefty. While minute, Espinosa does appear to display slightly more plate discipline, with fewer strikeouts and more walks (BB%) as a righty.

Let’s delve a little deeper into Espinosa’s plate discipline over his career, in the form of whiffs per swing zone profiles, courtesy of Brooks Baseball. First, we look at his whiffs per swing rates as a left-handed batter; from left to right, we find his rates against hard pitches, breaking pitches, and offspeed pitches:

Espi as lefty batter

…and as a right-handed batter:

Espi as righty batter

With the simple evaluation of how well he makes contact across pitch types and bat handedness, we find additional confirmation of Espinosa faring better as a righty, facing left-handed pitching. In general, we find Espi less susceptible to fastballs high in the zone and breaking balls in general as a righty, with occasional problems with offspeed stuff up in the zone. Nonetheless, there are fewer red boxes as a righty, indicating fewer whiffs and, in general, better ability to make contact.

As shown, Espinosa’s success does appear to lean towards his ability to make more frequent contact as a righty, despite most of the stats not showing large platoon splits. However, the reality is that switch hitting is altogether a different beast and isn’t just an amalgamation of left and right swings. As mentioned in a recent article on the subject in Baseball Prospectus, there will typically be an adjustment period for most, if not all, switch-hitters to undergo in order to successfully transition back to hitting from one side of the plate, with many physical and psychological hurdles to overcome in the process.

Briefly, it wouldn’t be terribly fair or feasible to force a transition of this magnitude, after many years of training and success as a switch hitter, upon a hitter mid-career; the odds are against this great of a change bringing long-term success.

What does the future hold for Espinosa with regards to his switch-hitting status? A quick perusal of The Book finds that it takes roughly 600 plate appearances (PA) against left-handed pitchers to really determine a switch-hitter’s platoon skill, which Espinosa is a little over 200 PA’s short of achieving. We also find that switch hitters tend to display smaller differences in performance with regards to left-right splits than their lefty or righty-only counterparts. With a little mathematical help and some quick calculations, we can find out what Espinosa’s future could hold for him in regards to wOBA as a switch hitter.

Taking his wOBA left-right split over his career and regressing his output, using National League switch hitter averages, we can see how, despite his woes at the moment keeping things together from both sides of the plate, Espinosa’s ability to not suffer too greatly from platoon splits should endure.

Math ahead – for those averse, you can skip this part.

First, let’s look at Espi’s career wOBA, career wOBA from the left and right, the raw difference between these two, and the percent difference between Espinosa’s career left-right wOBA:

Career wOBA

.306

Diff L/R wOBA

.050

Pct wOBA diff

16.33

Overall, roughly 16 percent of Espinosa’s observed performance is in his wOBA splits. Let’s now take into consideration that Espi has yet to reach that magic 600 PA against left-handed pitchers threshold, so let’s estimate his platoon skill at 600 PA, using NL-average wOBA split for switch hitters for 2013, which I have calculated at 0.971 percent:

Estimated platoon skill = (.1633*394 PA + .0097*600 PA)/(394 PA + 600 PA) = 7.1%

Taking this 7.1 percent and centering it, we can now take Espinosa’s estimated 2014 wOBA—here, I am using ZiPS’ .287 wOBA— and look at how much difference will lie between his wOBA splits, which come to .290 against lefties and .284 against righties. Not a tremendous uptick or downtick, which is typical of switch hitters.

What if Espinosa ditched batting left-handed and went with just hitting righty? Given there are statistical differences regarding platoon splits for lefty/righty only hitters compared to switch hitters, we will have to make some assumptions to do a similar regression to the one above; the first assumption is that Espinosa, the right-handed hitter, will hit at a NL-average level with respect to his wOBA splits. Again looking to The Book for guidance, we will regress righty platoon skills against 2200 PA against left-handed pitchers in place of the 600 PA used for switch hitters.

For NL righty hitters in 2013, their wOBA splits are as follows:

2013 avg wOBA, NL RHH

.313

Diff L/R wOBA

.022

Pct wOBA diff

7.03

Taking these numbers and regressing them against the 2200 PA against LHP threshold for Espinosa, we get the following:

Estimated platoon skill = (.1633*394 PA + .0703*2200 PA)/(394 PA + 2200 PA) = 8.4%

Again centering this value and applying it to Espinosa’s 2014 ZiPS projection .287 wOBA, we find that he forecasts to a wOBA against left-handed pitching as a pure righty hitter at .289, with a .285 wOBA against righty pitchers as a same side hitter.

Overall, we find that Espinosa as purely a right-handed hitter doesn’t project to be much better than what he does as a switch hitter, with wOBA as our guide. Given these calculations and the multitude of mechanical and mental changes to his hitting approach that would be required to make a transition to being only a right-handed hitter after many years and swings as a switch hitter, which appears to be his stronger side given his career numbers, we find that Espinosa is best left as a switch hitter.

While it is attractive to look at the raw left-right splits that Espinosa has displayed over his career, when taking onto consideration plate appearances and assuming league average results throughout the reversion from switch hitter to a righty-only hitter, we find that Espinosa’s best bet to regain value from an offensive standpoint is to stay the course.

***All data courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.
______________________

Stuart Wallace is a Contributor to District Sports Page. A neuroscientist by day, the Nevada native also moonlights as an Associate Managing Editor for Beyond the Box Score, stats intern at Baseball Prospectus, and a contributor at Camden Depot. A former pitcher, his brief career is sadly highlighted by giving up a lot of home runs to former National Johnny Estrada. You can follow him on Twitter @TClippardsSpecs.

About Stuart Wallace

Stuart Wallace is a Contributor to District Sports Page. A neuroscientist by day, the Nevada native also moonlights as an Associate Managing Editor for Beyond the Box Score, stats intern at Baseball Prospectus, and a contributor at Camden Depot. A former pitcher, his brief career is sadly highlighted by giving up a lot of home runs to former National Johnny Estrada. You can follow Stu on Twitter @TClippardsSpecs.

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