ALTOONA, Pa. – Aside from the torrid start of Kevin Kramer, the best hitter for the Altoona Curve so far this season has been first baseman Edwin Espinal. Not only a leader in the clubhouse, Espinal has led by example on the field, slashing .343/.390/.443 in the month of April.
The stat line alone is enough to garner some attention for the first baseman; however, his approach at the plate has been the most impressive part to me. Over the past year watching him, I’ve noticed that Espinal can easily get “too big” or loopy in his swing, overextending himself and not getting the barrel on the ball. That loopy swing rears its ugly head every once in a while, but Espinal has done a fantastic job with using a two-strike approach earlier in his at-bats.
Curve Manager Michael Ryan explained that Espinal will go to his two-strike approach in a 1-1 or 2-1 count to help him stay within himself in his swing.
“He’s a big man, so it is normal for him to get too big in his swing sometimes,” Ryan said. “When he can stay compact with his swing and stay short to the ball, that’s when he is at his best. He knows that so he is able to make that adjustment.”
Espinal, who will use a higher leg kick and stay a little more up in his stance when not using his two-strike approach, said that he likes to squat a little more, let the ball get a little deeper, and try to throw his hands to the ball with his protecting approach. This has also been another reason for him being so good at driving the ball the other way to right field, something that Espinal is proud of his ability to do.
“I like to stay in the middle and towards right field,” Espinal said. “I love hitting the ball over there.”
Ryan, who made the majors with the Twins in the early 2000s, said that he liked to use this same approach as a hitter, and it helps with keeping you balanced in your stance. The big, loopy swing – which Espinal said he works on controlling “every single day” in the cage and in batting practice – can only get you so far, and advanced pitchers can easily take advantage of you with it.
“Sometimes your best at-bats come with two strikes because you are so involved with the at-bat that you don’t want to get fooled,” Ryan said. “Your balance will be a little better, and you might even choke up on the bat some. If you are having success with two strikes, why not bring that in to different counts?”
A team that the Pirates are very familiar with also uses an early two-strike approach in certain situations and have found plenty of success.
“St. Louis does it with runners in scoring position,” Ryan said about the Cardinals, who had a Team OPS of .825 with RISP last season. “Let the ball get a little deeper and shoot it the other way. Sometimes with an off-speed pitch, you can turn on it.”
Espinal has been able to adapt to that approach, and it has worked well for him. Ryan and Hitting Coach Kevin Riggs have both said that he has a very “advanced approach” and are glad that the younger players on the team – both by age and experience – have the opportunity to watch Espinal work every day.
“He’s just so impressive,” Ryan said. “He goes up there with a different plan each time, but he sticks with it. With different counts and with runners in scoring position, he’ll change his approach, but he still stays within himself. It’s an advanced approach, and I’m glad some of our younger players can watch him night in and night out – different ways on how to do the job.”
And back to the other impressive April hitter for the Curve, Michael Ryan said it is no coincidence that Espinal continues to hit behind Kevin Kramer, who is leading the team in hitting so far this season.
“It’s not a coincidence that Kramer and Espinal have been back-to-back in the lineup,” Ryan said. “Kramer’s good at-bats carry Espinal to want to compete a little and drive him in. Having them back-to-back has been great. It’s two guys that are hot right now, and we’ll keep riding it.”
Currently, Kramer is third in the Eastern League in hitting, while Espinal is sixth.
A More Athletic and Mature Version of Edwin Espinal in 2017
When I initially saw Edwin Espinal in Spring Training back in March, I immediately was taken aback by how fit and in shape he looked. Honestly, he looked like a brand new person, and that was hard for me to believe, as he just became a dad last year, and we all know how hard it is to keep a strong diet with a newborn in the house. But seriously, he told me that he lost more than 16 pounds in the off-season while training hard and putting on muscle mass. Training at the Pirates’ Dominican Academy, Espinal said that the weight loss has helped his “play better, move better, and do pretty much everything else a little better”.
He also didn’t have a terrible role model this past winter in Miguel Tejada, who helped coach the Aguilas Cibaenas, Espinal’s Dominican Winter League team.
“He told me to try to hit the ball in the gap, stay in the middle of the field,” Espinal said about Tejada. “He told me: ‘Your approach is one of the best approaches I’ve seen in my life. Keep playing hard and enjoy the game.'”
His hard work and love for the game has been transparent and contagious this year, as players – and coaches – in the clubhouse have said how they love to watch Espinal play the game. He plays with such passion and joy, and it is evident every day. Everything from flashing a big smile after recording an out while playing first base to walking with a little swagger after making a good play, it’s honestly just fun to watch Espinal play baseball.
Espinal currently has the best strikeout ratio out of all active players in the Eastern League at 13.5 TPO/SO. He has only struck out six times in 81 plate appearances this year. Interestingly, he has the same walk rate with six walks, as well. Although his ISO is slightly down from last year (.110 compared to .122), and his BABIP is slightly inflated (.373), Espinal has not given any signs of an inability to keep his average at or around .300 and to continue to hit well to the opposite field. Although he is at a position of need for power, it cannot be ignored that he isn’t striking out and getting on base often.
One thing that we noted last season that he wasn’t the most agile in the field, but the weight loss definitely has helped his case there. If he is able to develop a little more pull power to accompany the opposite field and gap-to-gap hitting, the Pirates might have a guy worth taking a look at for Triple-A time. My guess, Edwin Espinal will be in Indianapolis before the summer is over.