Friday, February 25, 2011

Span's Grounders Must Get Moving

Denard Span burst onto the major-league scene in 2008, hitting .294/.387/.432 in 93 games for an .819 OPS that bested any previous seasonal mark in the minors by at least 70 points. It was a stunning emergence for the 24-year-old, who had been written off by many as a potential fourth outfielder at best.

Given that Span's success in '08 -- both in Triple-A and the major leagues -- seemed to come out of nowhere, some analysts wondered whether he would be able to carry it forward. In 2009, he did just that, assuming full-time duty and posting a similarly excellent .311/.392/.415 hitting line as the Twins' leadoff man.

That was all the team needed to be convinced that Span was legit. Last spring, they locked him up with a five-year, $16.5 million extension, buying out all of his arbitration years with an option for his first season of free agency.

So it was unfortunate when Span took a massive step backwards last season, hitting .264/.331/.348 in 153 games. Those numbers made him look much more like the fourth outfielder he profiled as in the minors than a quality starting center fielder and leadoff man.

With a relative unknown taking over the No. 2 spot in the batting order this year, it's imperative that Span reestablish himself as a strong top-of-the-lineup threat. How can he accomplish this?

In his excellent article for the Maple Street Press Twins Annual 2011 (which you can receive in a matter of days by ordering now), Adam Peterson breaks down the four components of offensive production: discipline, contact, power and base running. Peterson notes that last year Span led all Twins players in the discipline component, which quantifies expected runs when the ball is not put into play (specifically: strikeouts, walks and HBP). Span also ranked sixth among all MLB hitters.

In the contact component -- expected runs based on ground balls, line drives and bunts that are put into play -- Span ranked as the third-worst on the Twins, ahead of only Drew Butera and Jason Kubel. This was surprising because the component excludes power hitting, an area where Span has never been particularly strong. In the past, he'd made his living on succeeding with grounders, line drives and bunts, thanks largely to his speed.

Peterson's reasoning for this outcome struck a chord with me: "Most likely, this was the result of Span tending to hit the ball weakly when he hits ground balls."

Span himself has attributed his struggles on ground balls last year to the playing surface at Target Field, saying that it "felt at times like the infielders were catching up to those up the middle" and it "seemed like the grass would slow it up just a little."

Certainly it's true that grounders moved more slowly on the natural outdoor grass than the indoor carpet at the Metrodome, but to Peterson's point, I specifically recall thinking to myself on many occasions last summer that Span just wasn't making very good contact with the ball. Quite often he'd weakly tap it to the right side of the infield or back to the pitcher, and those simply aren't going to turn into hits much on any type of playing surface.

Span is a player who's going to put the ball on the turf quite a bit no matter what; his grounder rates over the past three years have remained constant (53.9% in '08, 53.1% in '09, 54.3% in '10). The key, especially now that he can no longer rely on the Dome's plastic floor, will be putting a jolt into those grounders so they can escape the infield with higher frequency, moving him closer to his .287 BABIP on ground balls from 2009 than his .223 mark from last year.

Raising his batting average will be the biggest key for Span in rejuvenating his offensive game this year. His excellent plate discipline and base-stealing ability make him an asset if he's racking up hits, and if you apply his same Isolated Discipline and Isolated Power figures from last year to his .311 average from 2009, he'd have hit .311/.378/.395, which is perfectly solid production from a leadoff man.

No wholesale changes are needed in Span's approach at the plate. Just a little more oomph.

I'm not one for online gambling, but if I were I'd bet on significant improvement from Span this year. What about you?


Marshall said...

Great article, incredibly specific statistic wise. Amazing how statistics rule the game of baseball, that is why I love the game and find it so fascinating. Props

cy1time said...

Perhaps if the infield grass is slowing down the grounders, he should think about bunting it a little more. That part of his game seemed to disappear when Carlos Gomez went to MIL. Baseball Reference doesn't show bunt hits, but it seems like he must have been down 12-15 from 2009. Gardy asked for more speed and got it. If Span can get on base, maybe we'll see a little more hit and run with Nishiokia. Nothing better than Mauer up with no out and runners on first and third. I expect Span to have a bounceback year and score 100+ runs.

J. Lee Rankin said...

Joe Mauer suffered from being on grass too as he is an extreme groundball hitter without speed. I wonder how Tnish will be effected by natural grass because he saw very little of it in Japan.

Adam Peterson said...

Nick, thanks for the reference to my article. I really appreciate it, took a long time to break down all of the data.

I think you're definitely on to something with Span. His line drive rate dropped a little (18.8% down to 18.0%), but not nearly enough to explain a 59 point drop in overall BABIP. And it turned out that by far the drop was due to BABIP on ground balls.

And to cy1time's question about bunt hits, Span had 4 bunt hits in 2010, down from 10 in 2009. And he was somewhat less effective, BABIP on bunts (non-sacrifice) fell from .370 to .167 on a similar number of bunt attempts (27 in '09, 24 in '10).

cy1time said...

Thanks, Adam. I'm suprised to see that his bunt attempts only fell by 3. I just don't remember seeing many attempts last year. The combined totals of Gomez and Span probably tricked me into projecting a lot bigger number from Span.

socaltwinsfan said...

I can't believe Span was blaming Target Field. He hit .302 at home and .228 on the road with similar splits in BABIP, .331 and .257.

Nick N. said...

I really appreciate it, took a long time to break down all of the data.

Of course. I really enjoyed reading it and hope everyone gets a chance to.

I can't believe Span was blaming Target Field. He hit .302 at home and .228 on the road with similar splits in BABIP, .331 and .257.

Yeah, I was struck by that also. Span hit .228 on the road last year, compared to .298 in 2009 and .296 in 2008, so it's pretty tough to make the case that Target Field was the root of his problems.

Adam Peterson said...

I think Target Field is a convenient excuse for Span's struggles last year. At some point, I'll crunch the data, but I remember a lot of sharp ground balls to the left side through the hole between short and third in 2009, but more of the rollover weak ground balls to second base last season.

neckrolls said...

I took a long look at Span's numbers this offseason, too. The positive results he got at home indicate pretty conclusively that Target Field wasn't the culprit. While he hit plenty of easy groundouts in 2010, we shouldn't forget that his component BABIPs were below league average across the board. The guy was just really unlucky last year - but only on the road.

Span put a lot more balls in play this past season - PAs that used to end in walks or strikeouts. He didn't take as many called 3rd strikes, but the corresponding drop in BB% made his OBP much more BABIP dependent. It's hard to make good contact when you're protecting on borderline pitches. I'd just as soon see him return to his 2009 habits, especially in full count situations. He'll get called out a few more times, but the extra walks he picks up should more than make up for it.

Anonymous said...

"so it's pretty tough to make the case that Target Field was the root of his problems."

Especially since he was able to put those numbers up with that inconsistent batters eye that sapped cuddyer of his offense.

DBeckHermantown said...

Look for Span to bounce back, all the numbers indicated was that his BABIP was over 70 points lower on the road vs. at Target Field. I think all Twins fans would enjoy seeing at least 30 non-sacrfice bunt attempts this year with Yoshi behind him to move Denard to 2nd for the M & M "Men." GO TWINS!!

Anonymous said...

Good article. It also shows that BABIP is not only luck, as it always assumed. The type of contact that the hitter gets (or that the pitcher induces) also comes into play

Anonymous said...

I believe that pitchers have figured Span out and unless he makes effective adjustsments then his best years are already behind him. Spans patience used to be a strength and get him ahead in counts; now pitchers are simply throwing more strikes (down in the zone) and getting ahead of him. DS hasn't shown enough power get pitchers to pitch carefully to him (especially since he rarely bats with runnners on base). I think a move in the line-up down to the 6 or 7 spot may help him.

No one will walk this anymore they'd rather throw it down the middle and force him to get a hit.

I'm kind of making all this up but as I re-read it I realized this may have been the most accurate thing I've ever posted and I do believe I have this one better covered than anyone else here.

-Zeus Cannon

Anonymous said...

Good article,But I believe that someone needs to teach DS how to step into a pitch and get some power, His problem to me is when he swings he is all arms and that will never do on natural grass.
He got away with it at the dome but it won't work at Target field.

Anonymous said...

Excellent observation. I like watching Span play the pitcher. He can hang out at the plate for quite awhile forcing the pitch count up and letting his teammates see what the pitcher is putting up. That is valuable. If he could put a little more power on the bat that would be awesome. Maybe Gardy should tell Span to do more push-ups!

socaltwinsfan said...

Wow, AL pitchers sure are stupid. It took them two seasons to figure out that Span is a leadoff batter with speed and little power, so they should just throw it down the middle, because apparently Span can't hit the pitch down the middle. Whatever.

Anonymous said...


it usually takes two years to figure most batters.

12 majors league players (brad radke most notably) have told me this.

no one likes your non-chalant attitude. by saying "whatever: you clearly imply that you dont care. so why comment

-zeus eyelids

neckrolls said...

If opposing pitchers have him figured out, then why did they let him hit .302/.371/.390 at home?