Thursday, October 15, 2015

2015 Season Review: Denard Span

The 2015 Season Review starts with one of the players potentially hitting the free agent market this Winter: Denard Span. His contract with the Nationals has expired and so the Nationals will have to decide whether to offer him a Qualifying Offer (QO), resign him to a long term deal, or let him sign with another team.

Span’s 2015 season was plagued with injury. He played in only 61 games, with multiple DL stints and days off for minor bumps and bruises. Span averaged 150 games played over the 2013-2014 seasons, so he doesn’t have a long history of missing major stretches of time. But, he also has a rather lengthy injury history, including a major concussion, minor back problems, minor knee problems, his offseason core muscle surgery, and now the surgery on his hips that cost him the end of the 2015 season. Span will be 32 at the start of the 2016 season, so the Nationals and other teams will have to determine if his injury filled 2015 season is a blip or a sign of an aging body.

When Span has been on the field for the Nationals, he has been great. He has hit over .300 out of the leadoff spot in both 2014 and 2015. His OBP isn’t spectacular as his walk rate is only around league average, but as long as he can hit around .300, he gets on base enough to justify hitting in the leadoff spot. In a league where the strikeout is the new norm and players on average strikeout in 20% of at bats, Span’s 10% strikeout rate is a refreshing breath of fresh air. By putting the ball in play consistently, Span plays up one his biggest strengths: speed. Span has consistently put up higher than average BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play), and subsequently higher batting averages, by beating out infield hits. Of course, as Span ages and attempts to overcome his major injuries, that speed is likely to decline, robbing him of one of his most valuable tools.

Span will never be mistaken for a power hitter, but he’s showed some surprising pop the last few years. After hitting 5 homeruns in his 147 games last year (his highest total since he hit 8 way back in 2009), Span whacked 5 homeruns this year in only 61 games! This is not a new found power stroke for Span, though, as his HR/FB ratio (a measure of how many homeruns hit versus total number of fly balls hit) in 2015 was 9%, three times higher than his career mark of 3%. HR/FB rate is not a stat that fluctuates dramatically over large sample sizes, so either Span made a major swing change or 2015 was a lucky spike in power. If Span had made changes to his swing to hit for more power, you would expect to see fewer groundballs hit and instead more fly balls. Span’s rate of fly balls and groundballs have been amazingly consistent throughout his career, and 2015 was no different as Span yet again hit the ball on the ground in 50% of his at bats. Looks like Span put a couple balls into the jet stream in 2015 and probably won’t be able to slug at such a high rate in 2016.

As mentioned before, Span’s rate of flyballs and groundballs have been amazingly consistent and the same goes for Span’s approach at the plate. Unlike some speedy hitters who fancy themselves big time power hitters, Span recognizes that his best approach at the plate is to wait for strikes and try and spray line drives all over the park. Span shows no pull or opposite field tendency, spraying 1/3 of his hits to left, 1/3 of his hits to right, and 1/3 of his hits to center. That means it’s hard to shift on Span, allowing him to find holes in the infield with well hit groundballs. That approach is sustainable because Span doesn’t have many holes in his swing, as you can see from the heat map below:

The heat map shows Span’s batting average on balls thrown to each part of the strike zone during his tenure as a Nat. There is a clear hole up and in to Span, where he is hitting only .191 and .229, as well as down and in where he hits only .227. Other than those holes, though, Span covers the plate well and especially likes taking the ball the other way when pitchers work him outside, hitting well over .300 on pitches on the outer third of the plate.

While there are definitive stats that display Span’s strengths as a hitter, measuring his defense is another matter. Throughout baseball, teams are trying to find ways to calculate defensive ability because of players like Span. Over the last two seasons, Span’s defensive measurements according to two popular advanced defensive stats (Ultimate Zone Rating or UZR and Defensive Runs Saved or DRS) have been below average. In 2013, though, Span scored well by both measures. Judging from the eye test, Span looks like a great defender, getting good jumps off the bat and covering a lot of distance to track down flyballs. Defense, though, is usually one of the first skills to deteriorate over time. So as good as Span is currently and has been for the Nationals, it’s likely his peak has been reached and his defensive talents will start to wane. Without more detailed stats, though, it’s hard to say for sure exactly where Span falls on the defensive spectrum at this point in his career.

And now for the million dollar question: What do the Nationals do about Denard Span? If the team had wanted to resign Span to another multi-year deal, they had their chance over the last few seasons. For that reason, it doesn’t seem likely that Span resigns with the team. That leaves the Nationals the option of offering a QO to Span or letting him walk.

As a quick refresher, players approaching free agency can be offered a QO from their former team. This is essentially a one year contract offer at a set price. In 2016, that one year contract is worth about $15.8 million. If the player accepts, he gets the one year contract and hits the free agent market the following season (and can’t be offered the QO again). If he declines, he hits the free agent market. However, the team that resigns him has to sacrifice their first round pick (or second round pick as the first 10 picks are protected) to the team that had the QO rejected. No player has ever accepted the QO, but it has torpedoed the value of middle tier free agents as teams are reticent to give up a draft pick in order to sign an older free agent.

On the one hand, Span will be 32 in 2016 so he is likely looking for his last, big contract, probably in the range of 3-5 years. That would make the QO less appealing to Span personally, as he won’t have the long term certainty of a multi-year deal. On the other hand, $15.8 million is over $6 million higher than his 2015 salary of $9 million that pundits agreed was a rate below his true value.

Scanning recent free agent deals given to center fielders who profile similarly to Span results in deals all over the board. Adam Eaton, who relies even more on his speed and ability to slap groundballs than Span, has a 5 year deal making $5 million a year. Brett Gardner has a 4 year deal with the Yankees making around $13 million a year. Melvin Upton is still on his 5 year deal making just over $15 million a year, but of course that deal looks like an albatross already. Span won’t make $15 million dollars a year on a multi-year deal, but making around $10 million a year wouldn’t be crazy so Span may decline the higher one year salary of the QO in favor of a long term deal.

The Nationals have a good chunk of salary coming off the books after the 2015 season so it would appear that they have financial room for Span at the QO rate. If Span were to accept, the team would be happy to welcome back Span as the starting CF. As good as Michael A Taylor was in 2015, he is still developing and strikes out far too much. Letting him get another year experience without having to play every day may be a win for the Taylor and the Nats. However, I expect Span to decline the QO and the Nationals to pick up the draft pick compensation.

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