A little over a month has passed since the Washington Nationals acquired their biggest prize of the offseason, centerfielder Denard Span. I talked about the reasons I liked the move when it happened, but looking deeper, Span brings more than just a guy who can bring stability to the leadoff spot.
One of the things that Span was one of the best in the league at last year was not striking out and that is a thing the Nationals needed, and every team needs at the top of the order. Last year, the Nationals had the player who led the National League in strike outs in Danny Espinosa and two other players who were in the top-10 in first-pitch swinging (Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper). Span sees a lot of pitches, which is good and also rarely strikes out. He only struck out in 10.9 per cent of plate appearances last year which was one of the best marks in the American League.
Span is also a very good defensive outfielder. He placed third among center fielders in runs saved behind only Mike Trout and Michael Bourn. The thing about Span is that he wasn’t always a top fielder. When he first came up, he struggled defensively however in The Fielding Bible Volume III – citing a May 2011 article by Tyler Mason of Fox Sports North it was said that Span made adjustments to his positioning once he became aware of the different hitters.
“I know where to play certain guys on certain counts and situations. Just a year better and a year older at that position. I’m just learning to position myself and position my corner guys a little better.” The Fielding Bible also says that Span can play deeper than most center fielders because he has shown a great ability to catch short flares.
That might mean that there could be an adjustment for Span as he approaches National League hitters but with a lot more interleague play, it won’t be as substantial a difference and with the data teams have, it won’t make much of a difference. However, the fact that says he positions his corner fielders a little better intrigues me. In Minnesota, he had Josh Willingham in 2012 who was the only newcomer to the lineup and one-year fielding statistic samples should be taken with a grain of salt but Willingham’s range factor went up from 1.69 with Oakland in 2011 to 2.04 with Minnesota and his Total Zone Rating went up from -9 to +2. His BIS Plus/Minus actually decreased so, like I said, small sample and should be taken with a grain of salt but it will be interesting to see how Minnesota’s fielders play without Span and if any improvement is seen in Washington’s corner outfielders who should already see an improvement by replacing Michael Morse with Bryce Harper.
So Span does a little bit more than simply filling a hole. He fills in specific areas the Nationals needed help in. He’s better at avoiding strike outs than any of the players who were available not to mention the lower price tag. I liked the trade at the time, I love it now and it will be interesting to see how the season unfolds.