Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Denard Span

Things I'm Not Worried About Part 1

Over the course of what I hope will be a rather uneventful offseason, I want to try to dispel some of the hysteria around the way the Twins finished the 2010 season. At the start of their final road trip, the Twins were 92-60, tied for the best record in the Majors. Even their lackluster finish couldn't prevent them from claiming the 4th-best record over the full season. A very good team, with very good players. I'm going to argue that several of those players are even better than the average fan seems to realize. Leading off: Denard Span.

I've been a Span booster ever since I first saw him play in the spring of 2008. Nothing about his game was flashy, but he showed solid fundamentals and an approach at the plate that was appropriate for his skill set. But his performance the previous two seasons was underwhelming, as he hit .285/.340/.349 and .267/.323/.355 with a high K rate at the upper levels. So he was sent back to AAA at the start of the season in favor of the much less polished Carlos Gomez. Span blew up to .340/.434/.481 in 40 games with the Red Wings, and eventually took over the Twins' leadoff spot by hitting .294/.387/.432 for the remainder of 2008 and .311/.392/.415 in 2009. Finally having reached his potential, the Twins rewarded him with a 5-year, $16.5M contract.

Then, in 2010, he hit just .264/.331/.348, essentially the same as his 2006-2007 performance in the minors. We've been had! 2008 & 2009 were a fluke - the real Denard Span is the same nobody we saw in the minors all those years!

The hell he is.

Though the slash numbers line up pretty well with his minor league track record, a deeper look shows that Span's offensive game was much closer to what it was in 2009 than 2007. In his younger days he had a poor understanding of the strike zone, with K/BB ratios of about 2/1. Last year, it was about 5/4, essentially the same as his excellent 2009. His distribution of liners, flies and grounders was only slightly different from last year. He hit a few more grounders, but for a guy with his wheels, that's not a bad thing. He cut his rate of IF flies - essentially automatic outs - and reduced his strikeout rate for the 3rd straight season. Those components combine to suggest that he should have been on his way to even better numbers in 2010.

So why didn't it happen? Check out the play made by Toronto SS Alex Gonzalez at the end ofthis highlight package from May 17th. This AB is a pretty good encapsulation of Span's season. He took the 1st pitch for a strike. He fouled off the second. Down 0-2, he made contact with a pitcher's pitch dipping down out of the strike zone. Span was exceptionally good at making contact this year - 11 out of every 12 swings got at least a piece of the ball. In this case, he put the ball in play - with the lowest BB and K rates of his MLB career, he put more balls in play than ever before (in fact, he was 5th in all of MLB in total balls in play). This one resulted in an out, thanks to a highlight-reel catch. At the time, I had this to say about it:

Lately it seems like something like that happens to Span at least once a series. When are those going to start falling in?

Answer: never.

Look at the liner that ended Span's dreadful 2 for 30 west coast trip from the 1st week of June (about 2:00 into the game summary). How about this play by Gabe Kapler from July 3rd?Span hit a ball on August 3rd that was ruled a FC because it forced Jose Morales at 2nd even though it hit the turf in RF. Span's 0 for 4 on August 24th included a lineout to the pitcher and a sliding catch of another liner to CF.

Those are just the ones I mentioned specifically in the blog. My impression from observing the Twins this year was that Span's season was a litany of bad luck at the dish. And the numbers bear that out. Here are the components of his BA (ground balls, fly balls, line drives and bunts) from each of his big league seasons and compared to the league as a whole (2008/2009/2010/2010 MLB totals):

GB: .257/.287/.223/.235
FB: .343/.257.205/.219
LD: .655/.763/.677/.724
BU: .300/.667/.214/.388

In 2008 he was really unlucky on liners but made up for it with good luck on flies. In 2009 he was lucky across the board. 2010 was just the opposite. The liners were unfortunate, but not the real problem. After all, everybody whacks a few bullets right at defenders over the course of the year. Had Span enjoyed league average luck on his line drives, it would have been worth just 5 more base hits. The regression to slightly below average on fly balls isn't a big deal either - he was due for that.

What really jumps out is the poor performance on grounders and bunts. Speedy guys like Span should always have a higher BA on grounders than the league as a whole. That's because the play that gets Jason Kubel by half a step is going to be too late to get Span. So to see a BA on grounders below the league average shows that not only did fewer than expected balls off Span's bat trickle into the OF, he beat out fewer IF hits than we would expect someone with his wheels would.

All those below average pieces led to a BABIP collapse in 2010. In his first 2 big league seasons, he hit .339 and .353 on balls in play - not outlandish for someone with his speed, but probably a little on the high side, especially in 2009. But even in his underwhelming minor league seasons, his BABIPs were .330 and .322. In 2010, his BABIP dropped to .294, by far a career low.

What would have happened if Span had enjoyed the BABIPs he'd put up in the minors? Let's split the difference between 2006 & 2007 and give him a .326 BABIP. He put 564 balls in play in 2010 (PA - K - BB - HBP - HR). A .326 BABIP would have given him 184 H, 18 more than he had. For the season, 22% of his H went for extra bases. That gives him 4 more XBH - let's call them 3 doubles and a triple. The higher BABIP then gives him 23 extra total bases for the season. Leaving his BB and HBP numbers the same, his line with his minor league luck would be:

.293/.357/.385, 27 2B, 11 3B, 3 HR

That's down a bit from his first 2 seasons, but would anybody really be complaining about it? Particularly in a year in which the average MLB leadoff man hit .264/.329/.382? We'd love to see more walks, but .357 still would have been the 3rd-highest OBP among qualified CF in the Majors. Just for having a more or less ordinary year with BABIP. If he'd had the good fortune he'd had in 2009, the line would have been something like this:

.316/.378/.415, 29 2B, 12 3B, 3 HR

Not quite as many BB or HR, but more H and XBH. Overall, it's basically the same season he had in 2009. That would have easily led all qualified CF in OBP, and placed around 6th in OPS right next to Chris Young, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rios. (His actual 2010 OPS placed him 3rd from the bottom among regular CFs.) 2009 was lucky. 2010 was unlucky. But Span was mostly the same hitter in each campaign.

Why the drop in HR? Need I say more than... Target Field? Span hit 3 HR on the road this year, the same number he hit on the road in 2009. But where the Metrodome had been good to him, yielding 7 HR in 437 AB, Target Field was stingy. Other than the unofficial exhibition blast that christened the new stadium at the end of spring training, Span wasn't able to get a ball out of his home park in 304 AB. He'll probably get a couple at home each year going forward, but we may never see his total HRs approaching double digits as we did in his 1st 2 years.

That's OK, because Span isn't paid to hit the ball out of the park. His job is to get on base. I think that's the biggest reason a lot of smart people are on his case right now. Span's BB rate has declined in each of the past 2 seasons, down to 8.5% of his PA in 2010. That's about half of what Jim Thome did. Patience is slump-proof, and a double-digit BB rate would have kept Span's OBP in the upper .340s at minimum. Where did the BB go?

So far, Span has reached in 100% of his career PA that ended with a 3-0 count. He always takes there. In 2008, a little under 2% of his PA resulted in 4-pitch BB. In 2009, it was a little over 2.1%. For all Major League hitters last season it was 2.1%, but only 9 of Span's 705 PA resulted in 4 straight out of the zone - not quite 1.3%. That has nothing to do with him - it's all about the opposing pitchers. Had they thrown ball 4 there at the normal rate, the rate he'd basically seen in his first 2 seasons, he would have had 15 BB in those situations. I'll assume that he eventually would have walked in about half of those PA anyway, so the net would have been 3 extra BB.

That leaves him about 8-10 BB short relative to 2009. Span is partially to blame for the decline, of course. Compare his full count PA between 2009 and 2010:

2009: 94 PA, 34 BB, 19 K, .225 BABIP (10 for 41)
2010: 92 PA, 26 BB, 14 K, .115 BABIP (6 for 52)

Clearly, there's some more horrendous luck there - the guy had BABIPs over .300 in every other 2-strike count. But there's a huge shift in general outcomes as well: upwards of 56% of his 2009 PAs in this situation resulted in a BB or K; in 2010 that dropped to 43.5%. As with his overall game, he made a lot more contact with the count full than he had previously. That could be the pitchers throwing him more strikes. But I think it's more likely a reflection of a change in approach. Instead of taking that two-seamer under the hands for ball 4 or strike 3 (depending on the umpire), Span put that pitch in play, and almost always made an out.

Is it better to put the ball in play in that situation? Depends. If there's no one on base, I think he might as well take the close pitches and try to work the walk. If there's a RISP with 2 outs and Matt Tolbert on deck, I'd rather have him take a hack and see what happens. Generally, he probably should only put a ball in play about half the time there, far less than he did in 2010.

During the season, there was a report that Span had become more aggressive because opposing pitchers were giving him more 1st-pitch strikes than before. That seems to be true, as his 1st strike percentage went up by about 1 point. But I wouldn't say it was necessarily because he was seeing more early strikes than usual. The proportion of 1-0 counts to 0-1 counts remained basically identical between 2009 and 2010. However, when you swing at the first pitch, it's always a strike, whatever the umpire might have called it. Excluding sacrifices, Span put the first pitch in play just 8.3% of the time in 2009, but that jumped to 11.2% last year. That alone can account for the increase in first-pitch strikes Span saw in 2010. He also saw about a 14% increase in ABs that ended on the 1st or 2nd pitch compared to 2009.

According to FanGraphs, Span actually saw 2% fewer pitches within the strike zone this past season overall. But the counts he found himself in were about the same as the year before, because he swung at more pitches outside the zone. And he made more contact outside the zone. And things tended not to go well when he made contact this year. For all the extra contact, he hit a significantly lower percentage of foul balls, about 9% below his first 2 seasons and the league average. That got me thinking: how many of those 2009 choppers to Jerry White in the coaches' box turned into choppers to Paul Konerko at the bag in 2010? Enough to ruin his ground ball BABIP? The difference in position of the ball in the hitting zone at the point of contact is minute, but the impact on the BA is huge.

So why did Span really get so much more aggressive? I go back to the Gonzalez play I cited above. If I noticed how often he was being robbed, it must have been on Span's mind, too. Maybe he thought those almost-hits would be going off the bat just enough harder if he weren't trying to protect with 2 strikes. Can't let them get to 2 strikes, gotta swing earlier.

That approach worked, at first. At the end of that Toronto series, Span was batting only .259, but he had a .359 OBP thanks to 24 BB in his first 39 games. Beginning with the Boston series the next day, he finished the month by hitting safely in 11 of the last 12 games, going 22 for 49 (.449), but with just 2 BB. His luck ran out on the west coast trip, as he began June with just 1 H in his first 6 games. And, since he was hacking at everything, he drew just one BB to go with it.

So Span has some things he can work on over the winter and spring. He should cut his 1st-pitch swings back down under 20%, and try to sustain the patience he has leading off the game in more of his subsequent PAs. He should be encouraged to keep taking the borderline pitches, especially with nobody in scoring position. If his overriding mentality is always to take 2 strikes, I don't think he can go wrong. He's great at making contact - he shouldn't be afraid to be behind in the count.

On the bases, Span set a career high with 26 SB in 2010 even though his attempts/SB opportunities was the lowest of any of his 3 MLB seasons. He had never been an efficient base-stealer in his earlier seasons, a frustrating deficiency for someone with such impressive speed. He hadn't had a full-season SB% above 69% since rookie ball, generally resulting in net SB in the low teens. 2010 was a breakout in this regard, as he officially succeeded in 86.7% of his attempts, resulting in 22 net SB.

That improved efficiency was tarnished by a high number pickoffs. Span was picked off in about 3% of his SB opportunities. The league average is 0.8%. Since only 2 of the 9 PO resulted in CS (meaning that Span was CS by catchers only twice all season), we have to assume that 7 of them came in situations in which he wasn't actually planning on stealing. Laziness? Lack of focus? I don't have an answer. It seemed like a lot of the pickoffs came in a cluster in the middle of the summer. It could have been a slump, just like pitchers and hitters go through. Whatever the reason, this is an area he will have to clean up next season.

In the field, it's easy to remember the far too frequent balls that dropped harmlessly between Span and one of the corner OF. That's a combination of passiveness and poor communication that he should be able to correct for 2011. He also failed to hold onto an exasperating number of balls at the fringes of his range, balls that he reached with long runs, slides, stretches and dives, but that fell to the outfield grass despite touching leather. Some of that was luck again, but if I were him, I'd ask to get some extra reps on those types of plays in spring training.

In spite of those shortcomings, many of the new defensive metrics ranked Span as an above-average CF. Baseball Prospectus' new system has him as one of the very best defensive CF in 2010. He'll never have a great arm, but his quickness and accuracy with his throws minimizes that weakness. With some continued work with the coaches, he could elevate himself to a universally recognized asset in the OF.

As his luck normalizes, and his excellent approach from 2008-2009 is reinforced, and he makes incremental improvements in his focus on the basepaths and assertiveness in the OF, Span will see excellent results in all facets of his game. He has the determination to work out the things he can control. The wheel of fortune will take care of the rest. I expect Span's 2011 to place solidly within the upper tier of CF/leadoff men in the majors. He's certainly nothing to worry about.

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