Welcome to the most glorious of days: the first of maybe two (if we’re lucky) days annually when we get a full schedule of four playoff baseball games. Several of my colleagues have already kicked off our Playoff Spotlight series with looks at the various fantasy values of several players who either are or were at one time playing in this year’s post-season. Pieces on Eric Hosmer, Josh Donaldson, and Edinson Volquez all await your consumption.
Today I’d like to turn my attention to a player I have a long personal history of fantasy entanglement with, Washington leadoff hitter Denard Span. Span’s coming off his best fantasy season since his first full year in the Majors back in 2009. His .302 average, 31 steals, and 94 runs combined to catapult him into the top 15 overall fantasy outfielders in 2014, just like I drew it up in the preseason when I was completely sold on the likelihood of that happening. So how did Denard get his groove back, and what’s the likelihood that what he did this year is repeatable in 2015?
Span was drafted out of high school in the first round, 20th overall, by the Minnesota Twins in 2002. His calling card was his speed, rated at the time as among the best in the draft class, and a defensive profile that appeared to suggest a true center field home. Offensive development was the big question mark, and scouting reports pointed to a slow-burn development type who would likely take a while to advance through the system as he figured out how to handle advanced pitching.
Well, turns out sometimes scouts know a thing or two, and that’s pretty much exactly how it went down. Span earned a borderline “bust” tag for his slow progress through the low minors where, despite being young for every level, flashing adequate defense, and never posting an OBP below .355, his lack of pop and poor baserunning acumen left scouts dismissive of his potential to develop into an everyday player. His development then appeared to stall out altogether against high-minors pitching, and Kevin Goldstein ignored him on both the Twins’ 2007 and 2008 top prospect lists. After Minnesota took promising-but-raw centerfielder Carlos Gomez back from the Mets as the centerpiece of their Johan Santana deal before the 2008 season Span appeared to be running out of time with the organization.
A funny thing happened next, though. Span got LASIK surgery in the off-season before 2008, and after logging over 500 games and 2,000-some-odd plate appearances in the minors he finally made his big league debut that April. With a suddenly-improved batting eye and newfound bat-to-ball skills he seized an every-day job on the strength of a torrid .295/.383/.446 campaign from July onward. He followed up that debut with an excellent .280 TAv campaign in 2009 that included a .311 average, 23 steals, and 97 runs.
The sophomore breakout kept him fantasy-relevant for the next several years, but unfortunately his play during that period did not. Between 2010 and 2013 he never hit higher than .283, and his diminishing on-base skills hurt his run totals, leaving him little more than waiver wire fodder for shallow leagues and a fourth or fifth outfielder for deeper ones. That all changed this year, however.
What Went Right in 2014
Well, a lot. Span’s struggles over the past few seasons were fueled by a couple particularly important trends, perhaps none greater than the collapse of his walk rate. And when I say it collapsed, I mean it collapsed. After taking ball four in a stout 11 percent of his plate appearances over his first two seasons in the bigs, he saw that rate tumble into the low eight percent range between 2010 and 2012 before bottoming out at 6.3 percent in his first season with Washington.
Now, in looking at his plate discipline profile it’s pretty clear that a shift in organizational focus likely drove a significant part of his discipline breakdown in 2013. After not swinging at more than 41 percent of pitches at any point in his Twins career that number jumped to 43.2 percent last year, and more alarmingly an O-Swing rate that had never hit 22 percent suddenly ballooned to 28 percent. His contact skills remained stellar, but he made contact with increasingly difficult pitches to handle. Washington clearly wanted Span to be more aggressive in the box, but Span responded in turn by becoming too aggressive and forcing weak contact on bad pitches too often.
He was able to take a step back this season and find something of a happy medium. He regained a bit of walk rate while cutting back on his chasing habits, all while maintaining a strong overall contact rate. His line drive rate spiked, and with it his BABIP. Toss in a career-low single digit strikeout rate, and Span saw a very welcome boost to his 2014 batting average.
He also took advantage of new manager Matt Williams’ stated preference for aggressive baserunning, ultimately reaching his goal for the season of swiping 30 bases for the first time in his career while turning in the most valuable baserunning season in the Majors. Perhaps most remarkably, in his age-30 season he posted speed scores in line with his ages 25-27 seasons after a couple years of depressed numbers. Suffice to say that’s not reflective of a typical aging pattern for speed guys. But it happened for Denard Span, and it allowed him to take that much more advantage of hitting at the top of one of the better lineups in baseball to pad his run totals.
What Went Wrong in 2014
Well, he was unable to reverse his popup issues, for one. Since 2011 he’d seen a nasty spike in his infield-fly-ball rates that had helped to take a huge chunk out of what had been well-above-average BABIP rates in his first couple seasons. It’s unclear from a surface scan of his heat maps and contact profiles what drove this explosion from a guy who popped the ball up around four percent of the time to one who did 11 percent of the time, nor could I find anything suggesting mechanical adjustment. But despite the improvements in approach and general proclivity for solid contact he was unable to get this number back under control this year. An above-average line drive rate helped boost his BABIP closer to early-career numbers, but line drive rates are notoriously unstable from season to season, and some regression could spell trouble for his future batting average given how many outs he gives away on wee little pop flies.
Otherwise, not a whole lot went wrong for Denard Span in 2014.
What to Expect in 2015
It’s unclear what we should expect from him next year, quite frankly. There’s little doubt he’s evolved into a different hitter with Washington than he was in Minnesota, and this year he seemed to find a nice balance for his new-found aggressiveness at the plate. He’s always been a very strong contact hitter and he really took his bat-to-ball skills to another level this year. Yet some of that value is lost on account of an abnormally high pop-up rate that eats into some of his batting average ceiling.
What we saw this season was much more likely than not Span’s ceiling. Now, it should of course be noted that this ceiling is an excellent ceiling. But as a speed guy entering his age-31 season it’s probably smart to temper expectations slightly for a repeat, even given the durability of his speed tool to date. His presence at the top of the Nationals’ lineup at least through next year (they hold a reasonable player option for 2015) should help Span retain value with a strong run total, and even if he hits .280 instead of .300 and steals 25 bags instead of 31, he can still be a fringe top-30 outfielder despite lacking much in the way of power category contribution. Basically I wouldn’t be willing to pay for this year’s production in full, but as a safe veteran option for an OF3 in shallower leagues or a weak OF2 in deeper leagues, he should remain a nice option.
The Great Beyond
The 2015 team option is the last year for his current contract, so next season will be something of a crossroads for him. A lot of Span’s value on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball is tied to his game speed, and he’ll be looking for his next contract at a playing age of 32. The real-life skillset is broad and (so far) durable enough that he should command a multi-year deal somewhere, but how he performs next season will go a long way in determining the length and value of that contract. Given the contact profile and a fairly high starting point for his decline phase I’d be comfortable projecting at least another two to three years of mixed league relevance even in shallower leagues, with the caveat that if he signs with a less-aggressive baserunning team for 2016 it could threaten a precipitous fall. Denard Span with 10-15 stolen bases won’t be of much value at all in most mixed leagues. But especially if 2014 does turn out to represent something of a new normal for his offensive approach he should last as long as his legs allow him to.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now