Nationals Baseball: Spanning the Flames

Friday, August 08, 2014

Spanning the Flames

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.

APR:  0.081
MAY: 0.121
JUN: 0.158
JUL: 0.043
AUG: 0.035

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?

APR: 33%
MAY: 24%
JUN: 46%
JUL: 22%

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%

APR: 20%
MAY: 25%
JUN: 20%
JUL: 33%
AUG: 23%

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.

APR: 8%
MAY: 5%
JUN: 7%
JUL: 14%
AUG: 3%

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?


Vdub said...

Cause: Good batting eye and taking a lot of walks for a month...

Effect: Getting more strikes thrown because nobody is afraid of your power anyway.

If he can keep getting those grounders through the infield nobody cares about the lack of walks, because as you said, he doesn't strike out either.

A side note is that a ton of those GBs have been up the middle and to left. When he is not going well he rolls everything over to the right side.

The past is the past. The present is now. Life is a garden. Dig it.

Jimmy said...

"Life is a garden. Dig it."
VDUB- at the very least put a gnome in it.

Eric said...

Fantastic breakdown, thanks for sharing.

The one thing that gives me a bit of hope is that Span recently said a lot of his success lately has come from attempting to put hits up the middle. Yesterday, he did that a number of times, save for one to 3.5 when the SS was shaded toward 2B. Even one of his two outs yesterday came on a GB up the middle that was intercepted by the SS shading up the middle.

I also seem to recall that Span's XBH success early in this streak involved him exploiting a gap in right center that opposing defensive alignments were leaving for him. I'd be curious to know if and when opponents adjusted to this and if that coincided with Span hitting more GBs, LDs, and flares to left, left-center, and up the middle.

Finally, all of these thoughts and observations lead me to a question: is there an example of a hitter who was exceptionally good at directing the ball, or is it nigh impossible to do against MLB pitching? If it is something at which certain hitters have excelled (e.g., Gwynn comes to mind as a candidate), is it possible that Span is managing to master this skill, at least temporarily?

karl kolchak said...

Mark it down: Span's $9 million option for next year gets picked up--not only because that's relatively cheap for a veteran starter in this league, but in part to give Michael Taylor one more year of "seasoning" before he steps into the starting CF role in 2016. It'll also give Goodwin a chance to bounce back and make one last case as to why it should be him and not Taylor as Span's successor.

And if Span has another good year, watch some other team desperate for a centerfielder offer four years and way too much money in a free agent contract for a 32-year old for whom speed is the most important aspect of his game.

Donald said...

Whatever the reason, I sure hope he can keep it going for at least 3 more games. What's your expectation for this series? Honestly, while I want the Nats to win or sweep this series, I'd take a single win. If they go 1-2, the Braves will only gain one game, though the narrative about the Braves owning us will keep up. If the Nats win 2, all of that narrative goes away and we extend our lead by 1.

It's really only a sweep by either team that will seriously impact the outlook. That's why I want to get that first win. As long as we don't get swept, we'll be okay. If we were to sweep them instead, I think that would pretty much end it. But I can't see the Braves losing 11 in a row.

JWLumley said...

@Vdub No one's ever been afraid of Span's "power" so there's no reason to believe he's getting more strikes because of it. Also, I would care about those walks because groundballs get caught. I've said from the beginning of the Spanaissance that I don't think it will last, due in large part to the fact that players Span's age almost never acquire the skill of patience out of thin air. It's randomness based in part on arbitrary endpoints and SSS that explains the uptick in walks.

Now, with all that being said, I do think Span's approach has improved. He is hitting more balls up the middle and to the left side. His front side is doing a better job of staying closed. He still shouldn't be getting the most PA's on the Nats, but if he can improve the average a bit and maintain the power it will make his leadoff spot less egregious.

@Eric Yes, there's an example, his name was Tony Gwynn, but he combined "directing" the ball with hitting it hard. George Brett is another good example, but same thing, he didn't just direct it he hit it hard.

Bjd1207 said...

@karl - Yea I'm loving how Taylor has looked this year, a ton of progress especially at the plate.

@Donald - I'm scared shitless for Stras' start tonight. He does poorly away from home, he does poorly against the braves...So this first game gives me the most willies (worst willies?)

Harang sucks, so if Tanner can keep us in the game I like our chances there. And we smoke lefties and Wood hasn't looked that impressive this year so I like that game, provided Gio doesn't blow up.

So I feel much better about our latter 2 games, a win tonight would set us up perfectly

Eric said...

@JWLumley - thanks for confirming Gwynn had that skill, and for citing Brett as another example.

So the next question is: is Span capable of the using same approach?

To find out, I think we'd need to see if Span's shift from hitting rockets to right center to hitting GBs and flares to left and center corresponded with a change in defensive alignments against him.

It would also be interesting to know whether or not those "rockets" to right center were hard hit. I have to think part of beating defensive alignments includes knowing when to hit hard into the gap and knowing when to slap it through a holebin the infield.

Disclaimer: I'm *not* suggesting Span is remotely on the same page as Gwynn or Brett.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Span might start getting hit with a defensive shift. I would put an infielder right near second base, collapse all the other fielders toward up-the-middle, and pull my infielders in, as he hits everything in front of them. It will then be up to Span to counter-adjust.

Personally, I don't mind the lack of power. He has speed, and anything that helps his OBP is a big win in my book.

Anonymous said...

meant: "pull my outfielders in"

Eric said...

@Anonymous - I think the Mets did that yesterday, and Span hit one through the hole at shortstop at one point.

Kauffee said...

"In August though the walks dropped back down".
Thats in part because his batting average is 0.448 in August. He has had in part had a smaller percentage of his ABS to wlk on since he is racking up hits. His OBP in August is 0.452 compared to 0.459 in July. Maybe pitchers have noticed his increased patience, stopped throwing him so many balls, and so he is seeing more good pitches to hit. He doesn't have a strikeout yet in August. I don't think the data support the end of the Spannish Revolution.

Kauffee said...

Also his BaBip is the same in August as it was in July. How come the July hits werent lucky ones but these are?

Eric said...

"Spannish Revolution"

Nice one. If he keeps it up, we might want to start calling it the Spannish Inquisition, where he tortures pitchers until they give him a base.

Anagramsci said...

The blog has been the site if the Spannish Civil War all season. Like most, I am happy to see him hitting well, but he is still not the ideal leadoff man

Kenny B. said...

Okay, I officially declare the "Spannish Inquisition" a thing.

Kenny B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kenny B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
blovy8 said...

You all have been Span'ked.

Eric said...

LMAO Kenny B! Very nice.

Harper said...

Kauffee - because in July he was hitting the ball differently - more Line Drives (which are very likely to go for hits), fewer ground balls (which are not very likely to go for hits). I'd personally say he was a little lucky in July (hard to hit that well and not be whether you are Denard Span or Miggy) so August stands out even more.

As for your theory on getting fewer balls, data shows he's getting more balls now than ever by a good margin. Seems like pitchers liked to challenge Span but were scared off after that hot April - so the lack of walks means he's really hacking up there. This is bourn out by his P/PA down from 3.9x in July to 3.5x in August.

Harper said...

hot July, sorry

Nattydread said...

Thanks for this Harper. You promised a piece if Span performed & you have delivered.

Two things:

1. Any friction between Harper and Span seems to have been simple media speculation. They are buddies.
2. Span has the best bat twirl in the MLB. What a stylish batting presence. How does that figure into the stats?

Go Span! Keep it going another 6 weeks!

Froggy said...

I've often thought Span, when he is spraying balls through the infield like he has been the past two months, reminds me of Rod Carew.

Eric said...

Kenny B - SpannishInquisition w/image got FP's attention and he used it on air. You on Twitter? If so, and if you care, let me know your handle and I'll give credit for the image.

Richard Parker said...

Span as always listens to Harper's predictions and promptly goes 3 for for 4, helping the Nats come back from 7-0 to make it 7-6 in the 7th. C'mon, Nats! (Span is now .304/.359.)

Mythical Monkey said...

Just looking at "external" factors in Span's performance over the last four years -- 2010 was the year the Twins moved into Target Field, which was a very different hitting environment than the old Metrodome; 2011 was the concussion year, and presumably 2012 was the hangover from the concussion. 2013 was his first year in a new league in a new park on a new team -- does that often lead to a slow start? Seems like it.

I don't think Span can keep hitting like he's been hitting during the streak, but at the same time, his on-base, slugging, OPS and OPS+ aren't really out of line with his career averages -- maybe he's just having a year on the higher end of his expected range rather than something flukey and anomalous.

Ask me again in November and I'll speak more definitively. Ask me again in ten years and I'll speak with absolutely metaphysical certitude.

Zimmerman11 said...

Just stayed up 'til 3AM to watch the Nats... Tired Tanner??? Bwahaha! And we're halfway through August and Span tore it UP tonight, so that's good too...The Spanaissance continues!

By run differential (the RESULTS) the Nats are playing about 5 wins short of their pythagorean prediction... so I'll take solace in that and the hope that Zim will be back ahead of the playoffs.

Hoping for a gem from Gio tmrw and to leave ATL up 5.5 games...

Jay said...

What has happened to Gio? I think this is 5 decisions in a row he has lost. His last win was against the Cubs back in the beginning of July. The offense did only score 1 run - that didn't help any. Will be curious to see if this offense is capable of getting on a roll again. Werth is hurt and probably shouldn't be playing. Need LaRoche to get hot (though August was looking better for him until the golden sombrero yesterday). Harper still struggling. Desmond is up and down. Ramos looks better at times. Cabrera is not much of an upgrade if we are still playing Espinosa against left handers. Why not just keep Walters and let him hit against right handers if that is the case??

Keeping my fingers crossed. If they can get hot the next two weeks then September won't matter.

Also, what is going on with Strasburg?? 7 runs and 4 homers against a team that had scored 18 runs in its last 11 games. This is my pet peeve over the whole Strasburg shut down debate. There is no guarantee he would have pitched well. He had gotten shelled his last two outings against the Marlins that year and he looked like a pitcher with a tired arm.

JWLumley said...

@Jay Gio's start last night is the reason that Win-Loss records for pitchers are irrelevant. He only allowed 2 runs. The Nats didn't score. Not really much he could've done other than get a few hits. Sure, he could've thrown a shutout, but if he would have pitched on Friday he'd have gotten himself a win. I'm also concerned with Gio's control, but digging into his numbers, Gio's just been very unlucky. He's given up a lot more hits this year with RISP than he ever has in the past. Remembering some of the anecdotal stuff though, it seems he's been bitten disproportionately to other starters by bad defense behind him.

To me, the starter to be concerned about is Strasburg. Really believe the Nats should deal him in the offseason to the highest bidder because he's basically become a walking red flag. No, it has nothing to do with his mental makeup, but rather to do with the complete and total hittability of his fastball. It's too straight and has dipped enough in velocity that hitters can handle it. For someone who doesn't locate particularly well, he needs to throw 96+. The four homeruns was a bit of bad luck, but basically Strasburg is a #3 starter on a poor staff, a #4 on a good staff and a #5 on a great staff. Not because he can't be great some nights, but because he's far too erratic to be counted on. He's a better version of Edwin Jackson, a guy with great peripherals who sometimes looks lights out and other times get lit up.

Jay said...

I would agree that Gio only gave up two runs. BUT he didn't even make it 5 innings. Not only did he not make it 5 innings - he threw 100+ pitches to not make it 5 innings. My concern is that it seems Gio can't locate anymore. He seems to have lost the feel on his curveball, which was his best pitch. It gets to the point of are we getting good Gio or bad Gio when he pitches. If he gave up no runs last night and came out after 4 2/3 at 100+ pitches - that is not a successful start. That is asking for trouble and killing your bullpen.

I wouldn't trade Strasburg - we'll never get equal value. Having state that - he is going to have to either locate or throw it a lot harder. I'm only partly kidding there. It seems like McCatty has really messed up his head. He used to be a strike out pitcher and throw heat. He either can't or won't do that now and he tries to "pitch to contact" and go deeper in games. The problem I agree is that he doesn't locate well enough and doesn't have enough movement to do that.

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