Washington’s Danny Espinosa problem is inextricably linked to its long-running center-field problem. If they had a credible fourth outfielder on the roster, Danny Espinosa would be nailed to the bench, and we would all be spared his nightly terribleness.
The Espinosa problem is this: The Nats’ everyday shortstop is having a hysterically, legendarily bad NLDS. Through Tuesday’s Game 4, he is 1-11 at the plate, with eight strikeouts. In the eight at-bats that ended in strikeouts, Espinosa saw a total of just 34 pitches, just a hair over four per at-bat. In those eight at-bats, he has seen just 10 pitches that were not strikes one, two, or three. That is incredible. Through four games, he has been about as bad a hitter as is possible without accidentally leaving your bat in the dugout.
It’s even worse—the only thing worse, perhaps—than what he did in the regular season, when he hit just .209 and struck out 174 times, good for 7th most in baseball. Danny Espinosa is not a professional hitter, if the qualifications of a professional hitter include knowledge of the strike zone, any measure of plate discipline, and a certain aptitude for making the bat touch the baseball. He is a flailing mess at the plate, and he is at his worst right now, when the games matter most.
This is a bummer, in no small part because Danny Espinosa has been around the Nationals his entire career and is an easy guy to like. He’s a twitchy, ferocious athlete with a bazooka of a throwing arm, and he grows cool and weird facial hair in the offseason in order to troll Nationals team photos in spring training. And, for a guy who has an almost impossible time putting the bat on the damn ball, he’s got some pop (26 dingers in the regular season) in those rare instances when one of his mighty chops makes contact.
He is also a very good and rangy defensive shortstop, an important asset for a team with the defensively challenged Daniel Murphy as the everyday second baseman. The good news is, the Nationals have another good and rangy defensive shortstop, one who also happens to be maybe the team’s best offensive weapon now that Bryce Harper has turned into a sulking, slap-hitting everyman. His name is Trea Turner, he is the prize prospect of the Nationals organization, and he produced a sizzling .342/.370/.567 slash line this year, with 13 homers and 33 stolen bases in just 73 games. Seems like the decision here should be pretty simple: instead of running out an awful hitter at an important infield spot, run out a fucking brilliant hitter instead.
Problem is, the Nats have Trea Turner playing center field, a position that is notably not the one he’s spent his entire career (to this point) learning and mastering. The Nats have Trea Turner playing center field because the two natural center fielders on the roster—Ben Revere and Michael Taylor—are close to useless at the plate. Revere is a corkscrewing mess whose signature move is popping the ball up in the infield, and Taylor has no command of the strike zone whatsoever and is far enough along in his career, now, that we can say with some confidence that he is probably a tomato can.
Still, you’d have to be pretty fucking horrible to have been a worse option than Danny Espinosa this season, and so bad that replacing you with a guy who has never played your position—and in the playoffs, no less—is preferable. Unbelievably, the numbers actually support this: Revere’s .217/.260/.300 slash in 375 plate appearances is only marginally worse than Taylor’s .231/.278/.376 in 237. And Taylor strikes out a lot: on 32.5 percent of his plate appearances, in fact—significantly worse than even Espinosa’s depressing 29 percent. And neither are remotely the defensive player Espinosa is.
Underwhelming center-field play (boy, that’s a charitable way of putting it, can you tell I’m a Nats fan?) has become something of a norm in Washington during the team’s contending years. It was also a feature of their plucky but miserable years—in the mid-aughts the likes of Brad Wilkerson, Marlon Byrd, and Lastings Milledge were out there—but has lately become something like the baseball version of the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts. People are moved into the role for hazy, possibly superstitious reasons, and then, as if predestined, they fall apart and move on.
This may have to do with an antiquated idea of what a center fielder must be. GM Mike Rizzo shipped out Milledge and reliever Joel Hanrahan in a 2009 trade for Nyjer Morgan, in a move that was celebrated at the time for solidifying the leadoff spot in the everyday lineup. Morgan had only become an everyday player that year, and Rizzo’s enthusiasm was misplaced—the hyped leadoff man hit .251 with a .633 OPS in his first full season in DC, and was caught stealing an MLB-worst 17 times. The team traded him the following off-season for scraps and cash, in what would be the start of an embarrassing pattern: use assets to acquire a veteran center fielder and leadoff man, watch his performance crater, and lose him for next to nothing.
The next notable example came in 2013, when they traded a valuable pitching prospect for Denard Span and immediately named him the everyday center fielder and leadoff man. Span did his job—he hit well in 2013 and even better in 2014—until nagging back injuries caused him to miss nearly two-thirds of Washington’s disastrous 2015 season, leaving rookie Michael Taylor to attempt and fail to approximate the kind of production needed from a leadoff hitter. Fearing that Span’s bad back would be a lingering, long-term problem, the Nats let Span leave in free agency after the season.
The organization’s response to Span’s demise and departure was telling. They cast about for someone in the same very specific mold, the quick and small slap-hitter traditionally socked into the leadoff spot from sheer lack of imagination. This led them to Ben Revere, whose qualifications for the spot look good on paper: He’s a light-hitting speedster with a deceptively high career batting average that distracts from the fact that he’s never walked more than 32 times in a season and has virtually no power. The Nats sent homegrown Drew Storen to the Blue Jays in the trade—maybe it worked out okay, so long as the lone criterion is whether Storen has been any better than Revere this season. He has not. They have both been awful.
It’s worth pointing out, here, that conventional wisdom about the role of the leadoff man in an ideal lineup has been slowly eroding for years, now. One of the most specific lessons of the first iteration of Moneyball was the overvaluing of base-running speed as a necessary quality of a leadoff hitter, the position in the lineup where on-base percentage is most important. That the Nats targeted and grabbed up Ben Revere, whose history of production suits him much better to the conventional wisdom-version of a leadoff man, perhaps says uncomfortable things about the organization’s interest in these newfangled analytics. All of Morgan, Span, Revere, Taylor, and other somewhat-recent leadoff placeholders such as Roger Bernadina, for example look the part, in terms both basic (they are all fast and underpowered) and jarringly specific—(they all played center field). It’s almost enough to make you wonder whether Trea Turner wound up in center not out of necessity, but because he was batting leadoff.
Which brings us to this season. The Nats scored Turner in a one-sided deal in which they fleeced the Padres for a can’t-miss infielder and a promising young starting pitcher (Joe Ross). Turner was immediately the heir apparent to lame-duck shortstop Ian Desmond, and spent spring training this year lighting up every pitcher in sight. But then Revere went to shit, and Michael Taylor was no better, and plans changed in a hurry. Revere hasn’t been a regular in the lineup since mid-August, and he hasn’t had a plate appearance in these playoffs.
So now their placeholder shortstop is having a historically bad playoff series, and they have neither the outfielders nor the infielders to make the obvious switch. For all the success Mike Rizzo has had building this Nationals roster, filling out a strong farm system, and keeping the organization relatively stable through a few years of turnover at the skipper level, he’s been unable to lock up any kind of stability in center field, and the position has become a revolving door. And this is the latest consequence: With their season on the line, their best shortstop will be in center field, their worst batter will be at shortstop, and the bottom of their lineup will be a gaping sore. And we will be stuck watching poor, hopeless Danny Espinosa repeatedly corkscrew himself into the ground in an elimination game. Joy of joys.