We started this off about a month ago by previewing Nick Punto, on Nick Punto Day. Today we get to the man of the week, Denard Span. Thanks again to Justin Bopp of Beyond the Boxscore for putting together the DiamondView. For a further explanation of that pretty graphic, I suggest you read this. (Feel free to check out the new DiamondView for pitchers as well.)
Clearly, Denard has established himself as another in a long line of successful home-grown talents for the Twins. He's a great leadoff hitter who, while not stealing as many bases as you might expect, excels at taking extra bases. After the jump, we'll examine his strengths and weaknesses as a player, and also take a look at what expectations are for him going into 2010.
If an above-average walk rate, a better than average strikeout rate and an ability to make contact on about 95% of his swings inside the strike zone aren't enough for you, if on-base percentages around .390 aren't enough for you, if his speed isn't enough for you...then don't worry, I have more reasons for you to love our center fielder.
The man is the epitome of patience. He joins Joe Mauer (and Nick Punto, actually) on the list of Twins Who Swung at Less Than 40% of Pitches In 2009. Indeed, it's his selectivity at the plate that's a big reason why he's so successful as a leadoff hitter. He actually swung at fewer balls outside of the strike zone than Mauer last year. In fact, only LNP took fewer such cuts. But we can stop talking about Nick Punto now.
Denard also consistently hits most pitch types very well. He's above average against fastballs, but he was even stronger against breaking balls: according to FanGraphs, he was 8.7 runs above average versus the slider, and 7.5 runs above average against the curve.
Span's speed, mentioned before in regards to the basepaths, will play a vital role in the outfield this season as well. Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel aren't fast guys, and as such they aren't going to cover a lot of ground. Good positioning can only do so much. With balls hit into the gaps this summer it's going to be a one-man race, and while Span's arm isn't the strongest for a center fielder, he's fast enough to off-set some of that.
He also has some power when he's able to get around on inside pitches. Denard hit .366 and slugged .640 last year when he pulled the ball. This, however, is the exception. The truth is that Denard doesn't hit many fly balls, and for a guy with his skill set that's not a bad thing. His high ground ball rates (53.4%) and solid line drive rates (21.3%) make him a singles guy, and his speed will help him keep his BABIP at a level where he can excel as a hitter without power.
Span had a little trouble with cut fastballs in 2009, although thankfully he didn't see too many of them in relation to other pitch types (just 5.6% of pitches). For the season he came in 2.8 runs below average against cutters. It's not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but only Carlos Gomez was worse last season.
We also just mentioned Span's arm. It's difficult to measure how good or terrible an outfielder's arm is, because there's a lot that goes into it: positioning and how many long throws they have to make, where they make them from, if the cutoff man is in position. Still, in 704 innings in center field across two seasons, FanGraphs calculates Denard's arm at 2.5 runs below average. Again, it's not terrible, it's just not ideal.
Power is clearly Span's largest deficiency. His Major League career has been short, but his .422 slugging percentage is propped up by his excellent batting average, as illustrated by his .117 isolated power. Because of his size and his swing, he's not going to develop a great deal of additional power even as he enters his prime. His speed will be critical in his ability to tally extra-base hits, which shows with his 10 triples last season in 578 plate appearances. By comparison however, he was a full-time player who only landed 16 doubles. While his low rate of fly balls (just 25.3%) ensures for fewer easier outs for the defense, it also means fewer opportunities for those extra bases.
A couple of those projections look pessimistic to me in different ways, especially ZiPS. They all expect Denard to continue to be a solid contact hitter with decent on-base skills, although only Marcel looks close to how most people expect Span to perform in his triple slash. In my offensive prediction thread at the end of January, I predicted he'd hit .301/.384/.418, and if I were a betting man (I'm not) I'd put money on him having a season closer to that or Marcel than any of the others.
No, there's not much of a difference, but I expect good things from Span again this year.
What's His Role?
Denard's role is two-fold: speedy center fielder and on-base machine from the leadoff position.
With Gomez in the fold the last two seasons, the Twins had the luxury of not only some defensive versatility from their 2002 first-round draft pick, but the luxury of having two guys around who could play center field and play it well. This year it's quite a different story, as the next true center fielder might not even be at triple-A but double-A in Ben Revere. Health is always synonymous with success when talking about contending ball clubs, and we need Denard to stay healthy.
Even with the addition of Orlando Hudson, Span is the only true leadoff hitter that the Twins have (at least in the traditional sense). With all the talent on this roster, Minnesota will have opportunities to tally a lot of fast starts this summer, and he'll be right at the center of it all--a talented and dangerous middle of the order (wow, can you imagine us actually being able to say that about the Twins and know it's true?) will be made more potent by having guys at the top of the lineup who will consistently be on base.
Span is a talented guy, but that's only part of the reason Minnesota has already grown to love him. He's also a very affable guy, who loves his job. And we love that in our stars. It's going to be a lot of fun watching him have the opportunity to shine this season as our everyday center fielder.