Saturday, October 25, 2014

Denard Span

The Nationals have to decide early this offseason whether they want to pick up the option for 2015 on Denard Span, so let's take a closer look at his 2014 and projections for 2015.


Span served as the catalyst for the Nationals offense this year, posting one of his better overall offensive seasons. He hit .302/.355/.416 with 5 HR. That was good enough for a 117 wRC+ (weighted Runs Created), a stat that calculates how many runs a player is worth offensively, controlling for park effects, compared to the average major league hitter. A wRC of 100 is average, so Span was 17% better than average on the year. Let’s take a closer look at how Span got there this year, and what it can help us project for next year.

Span’s 2014 numbers look pretty good, however, there are some clear trends in his peripheral stats. Take a look at this chart with a couple key rate stats going back to his rookie year (via Fangraphs):

Z-Swing %
Contact %

O-Swing is the percentage of pitches swung at outside the strikezone and z-swing is the percentage of pitches swung at inside the strike zone. While Span’s z-swing scores have been pretty consistent, his O-swing% is steadily increasing. That means he has been swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone. Take a close look at his contact % and strikeout %. While he has been swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone, he is still connecting on his swings at the same rate and actually struck out less than in previous years (he is still not taking that many walks). The cut down in strikeouts was the key to his stellar 2014. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) on the year was .330, which is on the higher side but is not out of line with his career numbers. He struck out less, while putting the same percent of balls in play, converting those into hits at a .330 BABIP clip. Normally, you would expect O-swing% and K% to correlate, so the fact that Span actually cut down on his cut strike outs while swinging at more balls leads me to believe that K rate will go up next up year, cutting down on his batting average.

Span also added a little pop to his game this year, slugging 5 home runs, a feat he has surpassed only twice before and not since 2009. One key stat to look at when evaluating power numbers is average homerun and fly ball distance. This is exactly what is sounds like, the average distance all balls classified as home runs or fly balls traveled during the year. Paul Goldschmidt led the way in 2014 with an average distance of 315 feet while Span checked in at 252 feet. In itself, that fact isn’t all that surprising or indicative. Paul Goldschmidt makes his living hitting balls very far while Span is a contact guy. Taking a look at Span’s career, his batted ball distance has decreased every year since 2011 when it was at 269 feet. This indicates that Span’s power is actually decreasing and a couple of those home runs in 2014 were fence scrapers that barely made it out of the park. Watching Span swing, this isn’t surprising as he doesn’t create a ton of power with his lower half. He gets his foot down very early and relies on his quick hands to meet the ball and let the pitcher create the power on his swing. Sure, he can still run into one when he drops the barrel, but I wouldn’t count on it going forward. 

Fangraphs has a really cool feature called the heatmap that breaks down a lot of statistics by section of the strike zone. Take a look at this heatmap that shows Span’s 2014 swing%. You will see he is very good at laying off the pitches up and out of the strike zone and generally good at laying off the pitch outside and inside. He is swinging at a lot of pitches down and out of the strike zone, though. If you compare his 2014 swing% heatmap to his career excluding 2014 here, you will see that this is what is what’s driving that increase in his O-swing%. As we saw above, when Span swings, he rarely misses, even at those low pitches out of the zone as shown here. Just for fun, compare that to Chris Davis’ contact rates for 2014 to really appreciate how impressive Span’s contact ability is (or how bad Davis’ was). So we see that Span is swinging at low and away pitches more, but check out where he is getting his hits. For simplicity, don’t focus on the numbers as the graphic shows you average per pitch in each section, but check out the hot zones. Span is actually turning pitches down and out of the strike zone into hits more often than pitches right down the middle. If you adjust the years on that graph to see his career numbers before 2014, you see this is a recent change. On the flip side, in order to be able to hit those low pitches he has opened up a hole in his swing up and particularly up and in. I would expect pitchers to start focusing on taking advantage of that. It’s pretty clear to see Span’s approach at the plate. He is looking for a ball he can hit hard on the ground or on a line, looking to find a hole or exploit his speed and beat out an infield hit. He’s subscribing to the Willie Mays Hays batting philosophy, and he’s a good job of avoiding doing pushhups.


Span had a solid year running the bases, posting a career high with 31 steals at a success rate of nearly 82%. That was good for a 2.9 wSB, also a career high by a good margin. Span has consistently posted stolen base success rates over 70%, our general cut off for stolen base success rate. While Span’s speed is likely to diminish every year, that doesn’t mean his stolen base skills will as well. Stolen bases have as much to do with pure speed as they do with understanding the situation and scouting the pitcher’s tendencies. Just take a look at Billy Hamilton, one of the fastest players in the game, who is still learning to turn that speed into successful baserunning while guys like Coco Crisp have been able to sustain stolen base success into the tail end of their careers. Span has also posted pretty consistent UBR scores, so he has been excelling at taking the extra base when it’s available. Matching a career high is always a tall order, but I wouldn’t expect to see a huge drop off here.

Span receives a lot of plaudits for his defensive work, including his Gold Glove nomination this year. The eye test certainly confirms this as he seems to reach all the balls hit anywhere near CF. The advanced stats certainly were not kind to Span this year as he posted a DRS of -3 and UZR score of -4.7. Defensive statistics are subject to small sample size caveats, as these rates are based only on the potential attempts a player gets during the year. Lose a couple run-ins with the Sun Monster on easy pop flies and your defensive score can drop. That is why it’s usually best to take a look at a 3 year sample to balance out those kind of miscues. Span’s three year average for DSR of 6.7 and UZR of 4.4 looks more indicative of his true talent. 


Given all that we have covered, it’s an easy decision for the Nats to re-up Span for next year. It is a relatively cheap option year and the Nationals don’t have a proven alternative to plug in his place, although I’m sure they will spend 2015 working in Michael Taylor or Steven Souza to be ready for 2016. Fangraph’s initial Steamer projections for 2015 are out and project Span at a triple slash of .279/.335/.382 with 5 homeruns and 25 stolen bases. The home run line seems high to me, but otherwise it looks about right. Span is clearly a slap hitter at this point, with some holes at the top of his swing, but that still has a lot of value for this Nationals team in 2015.

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