To this point in his still relatively short career, Denard Span's four seasons have a very clear split right down the middle. In one corner we have 2008 and 2009, seasons where he was regarded as one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball. In the other corner we have 2010 and 2011, where one season just wasn't what we'd come to expect and the other was shortened due to injuries including a concussion.
Of course the single biggest factor in Span's declining production, at least as far as 2011 is concerned, was being unfit to play. Being on and off and on and off the field probably messed with his timing and his comfort at the plate, and there were certainly times where it seemed as though he was only there because the only other two regular guys playing were Michael Cuddyer and Danny Valencia. When he returned in August, for example, he was just 2-for-35 (.057) with three walks and nine strikeouts.
He didn't belong back on the field.
But even before his first trip to the disabled list of 2011, Span's triple slash was .294/.361/.385. That's just fine for a leadoff hitter in terms of reaching base, and it was definitely better than his overall line from 2010 (.264/.328/.359) , but it also shows that Denard was losing what little power he had shown in his first two seasons.
Breaking down Span's peripherals between the two halves of his first four seasons, there are a few commonalities. 2010 and 2011 were differentiated from the previous two years by:
- Walk rates that had declined from just north of 11% to approximately 8.6%.
- A noticeable jump in swings on pitches outside the strike zone.
- A significant increase in contact made on pitches outside of the strike zone.
- Drastic power loss versus left-handed pitching from '08 and '09 (.470s) to '10 and '11 (.330s)
Patience and plate discipline will have some effect on power, but they're not a deciding factor; certainly they'll have a bigger effect on how often a player reaches base. How pitchers have approached Denard in both time periods isn't drastically different (a few more sinkers, but nothing significant), nor are the results off of those pitches (fastballs, changeups, sliders, curveballs, sinkers, splitters) in terms of swings, whiffs, fouls, or in-play.
Since the move to Target Field, Span has hit fewer fly balls to his pull field. For a player with a profile like Denard, fewer pulled fly balls is going to mean fewer home runs. But that's only part of the picture. What's interesting is that his percentage of extra-base hits per at-bat dropped after his rookie season, not between the career divide we've been talking about. Correspondingly his isolated power took a hit as well.
Career Isolated Power
What we're left looking at is a good year ('09) which, while slightly better than the less-good half of his career to date, saw him collect extra-base hits at the same rate as he did in '10 and '11. Which means that even though he was hitting fewer fly balls in the latter two seasons, it was less the extra-base hits that he was missing than it was just hits in general.
And that's the case in terms of his on-base percentage as well, which is the single biggest factor in determining who might be a good leadoff hitter and who might not be. Not only did Span's walk rates drop in those latter two seasons, but so did his batting average on balls in play.
There's a good correlation between batting average on balls in play and how hard a player hits the ball. The best hard-hit balls are line drives, and Span's numbers have always been solid: 25.7, 18.8, 18.0, 20.7. For a point of reference, a player hitting line drives at the rate Span does would be expected to post a BABIP in the .330 range. A higher number could indicate a certain level of good luck, while the opposite could be true for lower numbers.
Declining skills will almost always result in a lack of production but Span's had everything thrown at him over the last couple of season, from injuries to bad luck.
This year, Span has been one of Minnesota's few bright spots. While the walk rates still aren't where they were in his first two seasons his luck has evened out pretty well and, it has to be said, he's healthy. For the first time in as long as I can remember, he doesn't appear to be fighting through something in order to be on the field. Health is such a mitigating factor in anyone's career, and Span has been re-establishing himself as one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball.
As one of the only players under contract beyond 2014 (his option year in 2015 would include him with Joe Mauer
and Glen Perkins
), Span should still be considered one of the center pieces of this Twins
team and a piece that the front office can build around. In what promises to be another long summer for Minnesota baseball fans, it's good to not just have someone to cheer for, but to have a couple of players who could legitimately still be around when the team will be in the thick of contention once again.