Up until a little more than a month ago, a fair chunk of Nats fans were calling for Denard Span to be taken out of the leadoff spot. I won't deny that if I wasn't the president of this group, I was a top general. It made sense as the past 4 years of data said "at best ok, more likely meh". Four years! We're not talking small sample size here, we're talking some player's careers.
But sometime in late June Denard took off like a rocket. When it was just a hot month we could ignore it. I could make an All-Star team out the worst 3 players at each position if I could just take their hottest month as how they'll perform (Before you overreact, I'm not saying Span was in the bottom 3 CF) Now though, it's stretching into week 6 and hasn't slowed down. Is there rhyme or reason to this transformation?
One thing that has been downplayed, and rightfully so when you are getting on base almost 50% of the time, is that Span's power has completely disappeared during this stretch. His average is so high that you don't notice with a glance at the SLG percentage but the isoSLG (how much of his slugging is from XBH) tells the story.
Remember when he was hitting all those doubles? Yeah, not so much. In this stretch of 30-whatever games of getting on base (about 50 from the record for those into those things), he's had 5 two-baggers and no 3B or HR. Again you don't care about this when you are getting an OBP of .450, but investigating the lack of power might help lead us to the reason for Span's surge.
You can have GB doubles and you can have LD doubles, but for a player like Span (no pop) it's not uncommon to have your XBHs vary with your FB%. You hit a good fly ball but it doesn't go out of the park - you get a double. How has Span's FB% changed?
If you were to guess he had his biggest power month in June you'd be correct. And his abandonment of hitting fly balls in July and August seem like at least part of the reason that BABIP is so high. He's been "Willie Mays Hayes"ed. You hit a bad fly ball but it doesn't go out of the park - you get an out. But why wasn't May like July and August? Let's check his LD%
Hmm in May he hit a lot of groundballs, had a pretty typical BABIP and had what you would consider a typical good Span month .296 / .331 / .417. In July he hit a lot of line drives and had a killer month for any hitter that doesn't measure success with HRs. .368 / .459 / .411. August? August honestly looks more like he's caught some breaks (it's not like he crushed those hits yesterday). So are we nearing the end of the Spanaissance? Well there is more than one way to get on base. How did his walk rate change over time.
Part of what had been keeping Span from being a good offensive player was his lack of patience. You hit .265 to .285 like Span does and that's an average that serves as a good base. But add to that no power and it's necessary to get on base to be good at the plate. Span didn't do that so he floated around that completely replaceable range and let his other skills, plus defense, plus speed, keep him starting. But in July he walked a ton and that took him from a guy having a hot month of singling to a player who might be the Nats most valuable. In August though the walks dropped back down.
In July Span got base hits on roughly 34% of his grounders (quick hand work so forgive me if you find the numbers a little off). In August that number is 47%. For 2014 overall this number is about 28% and over his career this number is just over 26%. The career numbers make sense. In general ground balls get hits somewhere in the 26% range. In July you could explain the higher than average number hits by saying Span was hitting the ball harder. Look at all those line drives. In August...
Ok it seems like what I'm saying is that the Span party is almost over. If you're the pessimist (realist?) that's how I would take it. In July Span truly was a great player at the plate, hitting the ball hard and walking a lot, but in August (and really the last few days of July too if you look at it) he's been a groundball hitting machine bouyed by luck. BUT if you're an optimist you could see it as a hidden down period that he can come back from. If he hit well in July for 4 weeks why can't he do it again? He might be off and getting lucky right now but we don't care about what should have happened as much as we care about what did. So he hit a bunch of grounders that found holes the past two weeks. That's GREAT. They found holes. Today he can start hitting line drives and walking again. And he hasn't K'd in August either.
Pessimist? Optimist? You know where I'm going to lean, but I'll say to the optimist that with a few days left in June we would have said the chances for a month like July were tiny. It happened. So if the chances for Span to turn it on again are tiny that doesn't mean they don't exist. He did it. He did it recently. Why can't 2014 be his special year?