Denard Span: National League Ranking


Aug 3, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals outfielder Denard Span (2) hits an RBI single in the third inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the month, we will be ranking each Nationals starter and a couple of bench players to see where they rank at their positions in the National League.  Earlier this week, we ranked Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper.  Today we will be continuing our series with Denard Span.

In these rankings, we will be using statistics from the last two seasons to give us a bigger sample size – to see just how good Nationals players are.  In this effort, we will see which parts of the team need to be fixed and which are solid compared to the rest of the league.  The first step for the Nationals is to win the division, so if any National League East player comes across in our findings, we will be sure to point it out.  If not, the main goal is winning the National League Pennant and going to the World Series.

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I will analyze standard offensive and defensive statistics, as well as advanced statistics.  This will give us a full picture of who the best players are at that position.  To put the players in some type of order, we will be using WAR.  That gives us a baseline to start the analysis.

Oh, Denard Span.  I’ve been so critical.

Over the last two seasons, Span ranks third in the NL by fWAR for centerfielders (I’m dismissing Yasiel Puig who officially ranks third since, you know, he primarily plays right), sitting well behind 2013 MVP Andrew McCutchen and Carlos Gomez but slightly ahead of youngsters such as A.J. Pollock and Juan Lagares.  Pollock lost half a season to hand surgery would be above Span without the injury, and I expect after another season Lagares and Marcell Ozuna will move ahead of Span as well.

Amazingly enough, expanding this list out to include all outfielders Span ranks 10th in fWAR over the past two seasons.  McCutchen and Gomez still rank first and second, but the names below them belong to middle of the order bats such as Hunter Pence, Jayson Werth, and Giancarlo Stanton.  The only other leadoff hitter in that top 10 is Jason Heyward, though he hit fifth as well.

You get the idea.  Span is a quality centerfielder.  Maybe he’s not top 20 MVP good, such as he was in 2014 when he finished 19th, but three straight seasons at or above 3.4 fWAR is nothing to dismiss lightly.

Offensively, it’s difficult for Span to measure up against players such as Cutch and Gomez since they both hit for far more power and are legitimate threats.  By ISO, a measurement of raw power that accounts for extra base hits, Span is fifth out of seven for qualified centerfielders over the last two seasons, and if we remove that silly constraint of at-bats, Span drops down to 33 out of 64, tied with not the pitcher Adam Eaton.

Power?  That’s not Span’s game.  Span is a top of the order offensive initiator.  By wRC+, a measurement of total offensive value, Span ranks next to last for qualified NL centerfielders (well above the mess that B.J. Upton has been in Atlanta) with a wRC+ of 107 and removing the qualified restraint Span comes in at 13th.

A score of 107 means that Span creates 7% more runs than a league average hitter.  If you’re wondering, that ridiculous summer Span had at the plate in 2014 was good for a wRC+ of 117 by year’s end.  That figure placed Span sixth (once again, discounting Puig) in all of baseball for centerfielders.  The names in front of him are the familiar ones such as Cutch, Trout, and Beltway rival Adam Jones.

Is that Span returning in 2015?

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece discussing some of Span’s defensive limitations, but by UZR Span ranked second in the NL over the last two seasons defensively for centerfield.  He was so far behind Carlos Gomez it’s really not worth bringing up the numbers, but he was the only other CF to be in the positive.  By UZR/150, and then removing the at-bats qualifier, Span drops down to 45th.  Personally, I find that a little hard to believe that Span is the 45th best center fielder over the last two seasons especially when Span has logged 2600+ innings there during that timeframe while many above him have fewer than 100.  If you believe that the Nats minor league second baseman Jeff Kobernus is a better CF than Span, nothing I say can convince you.  Your eyes have deceived you.

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These numbers aren’t anything revolutionary.  Largely they confirm what we probably already know (except for the Kobernus fans).  Span has pretty good range in center, makes the plays he needs to, and fields his position well.  His arm isn’t the greatest (his seven outfield assists tied him for last in the NL).  He’s not Lagares or Gomez in center, but players of that ability in the field are uncommon.

To belabor the point above, according to Fangraph’s Inside Edge Fielding, Span made 100% of the routine plays but just 30.8% of those plays considered unlikely (where there’s a 10-40% chance of the play being made).  By comparison, Lagares and Gomez have made 37.5% and 33.3% respectively of unlikely plays.

The concern with Span is that these numbers have been in decline over the past few years.  For plays that were deemed as a likely to be made (60-90% likelihood) he’s dropped from 100% to 94.4% to 92.3% over the last three years.  These are gradual reductions, certainly, but rarely is decline so rapid that we’re always able to notice it.

Baseball-Reference tells a similar story in regards to Span’s defense, sadly.  His dWAR over the years has declined from a high of 2.4 in 2012 to -0.1 last season.  Span will play ’15 at the age of 31, an age that saw Torii Hunter and Mike Cameron begin to decline.  Span isn’t the defensive specialist of either Hunter or Cameron, and he also doesn’t carry the same bat.

They call that a warning.

Expecting Span to remain a top three center fielder next season would be considered optimistic.  He’s probably only the third best CF in the East, behind Lagares and Ozuna.  Fangraphs projects Span to accumulate 2.8 fWAR next season with an uptick in strikeouts and a decline across the board in the counting stats.  It’s hard to argue against this.  His BABIP last season was .330, the highest it’s been since 2009 and higher than his career average.  The site is somewhat generous with his defense, predicting a positive contribution if not dominant.

Steady is what we can probably anticipate from Span next season.