Counting on a big season from Denard Span

Denard Span set a career high in 2010, appearing in 153 games and amassing 705 plate appearances. Unfortunately, that's about the best thing you can say about his season.

OK, that's not entirely fair. Span rated pretty well defensively last season, and his 2.9 WAR wasn't that far off the average for center fielders. But his bat...oh, man, his bat. Using wOBA (which "combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric") Span ranked as the fourth-worst hitting center fielder in baseball last season, sandwiched between Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Bourn.

This was quite a drop-off from Span's first two seasons in the pros. Span ranked as the third-best hitter at his position in 2009, and rated even better (albeit in limited playing time) in 2008. Here are the nitty-gritty details:

Year

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

2008

0.294

0.387

0.432

0.819

2009

0.311

0.392

0.415

0.807

2010

0.264

0.331

0.348

0.679

Without a doubt, 2010 was a horribly disappointing season for Denard Span. Yet I remain absolutely convinced Span is going to bounce back with a strong 2011 campaign. Why do I feel so strongly about Denard's season? We'll get into it after the jump:

Let's break this into 4 categories:

The Luck

Back an August, I wrote a post here entitled "What can Crash Davis teach us about Denard Span?" I don't want to rehash all the points I made in that article here, as the power of hyperlinking makes it just as accessible now as it was 7 months ago. But let me paraphrase it: Denard Span was incredibly unlucky last season. Below I've update two key charts I used in that previous article:

Denard's batted ball profile - his rate of ground balls, line drives, and fly balls - was virtually identical between 2009 and 2010:

GB/FB

GB%

FB%

LD%

2009

1.89

53.1%

28.1%

18.8%

2010

1.97

54.3%

27.6%

18.0%

However, there was a huge difference in how frequently the balls he put into play turned into hits. The following chart shows his batting average when hitting grounders, fly balls, and line drives.

BA

GB

FB

LD

2009

0.287

0.203

0.763

2010

0.223

0.186

0.677

So here we have a player seemingly doing everything the same (same number of ground balls, same number of fly balls, same number of line drives), but getting vastly different results.

Now, we shouldn't automatically assume the difference here is just luck. As I said in August: "A hard hit ground ball has a better chance of sneaking by a fielder than a slow chopper to first, and we've all seen Denard hit his fair share of choppers to first this season."

So rather than just chalking up Denard's season to bad luck, let's review what the scouts had to say.

The Scouts

The experts at Inside Edge review pitch-by-pitch video of every player in the major leagues, grading them on several key criteria. If Denard's disappointing 2010 campaign was the result of poorly hit ground balls dragging down his batting average, the evidence would show up in their scouting reports.

However, that's far from the case. In fact, reviewing their reports on Span, it actually appears he was regularly making better contact in 2010 than he was in 2009.

I won't bore you with all the details, but here is a summary: Inside Edge uses the term "well-hit" to describe an at-bat that results in a batter making solid contact, no matter if the "well-hit" ball results in a hit or an out. In 2009, when Span's OPS was above 800, 19.9% of his at-bats ended with a "well-hit" ball. In 2010, when his OPS dropped below 700, he made solid contact in 22.9% of his at-bats. His "grade" in that category rose from C- in 2009 to a B+ in 2010.

In fact, virtually across the board, the scouts at Inside Edge rated Span's 2010 season as superior to his 2009 campaign, except when it comes to the numbers that show up on the back of a baseball card.

These scouting reports pour cold water on the notion that Span's drop in BABIP was the result of him making poor contact more frequently. In fact, they suggest Span is continuing to progress as a hitter, which makes sense considering his age and exceptional plate discipline.

The Player

Another reason I'm so convinced Denard will bounce back from a poor 2010 is the type of player he is: young, athletic, and disciplined.

The age and athletic part is easy: Span's bat was great as a 24 year old, great as a 25 year old, and mediocre as a 26 year old. Even if that was all we knew about him, we'd expect some level of return to normalcy in 2011.

I also think Span's plate discipline is an important element here. It's certainly not unusual to see young, free-swinging hitters suddenly get exposed by pitchers who learn to avoid the strike zone. But that's certainly not the case with Span. Even though his walk rate did dip in 2010 - which is not an irrelevant fact - he remains an extremely patient hitter. His walk percentage is still well-above average, and he rarely swings at pitches outside the strike zone (I mean rarely: last season, only three hitters in all of baseball swung at a fewer share of pitches outside the strike zone than Span).

Span's patience remains one of his biggest strengths as a hitter, and it's a skill that helps him weather the ups and downs all high-contact, low-power hitters experience. While 2010 was certainly a down year, it wasn't the result of him losing his patience or turning into a free-swinger. Even better, we know he'll still have his patience when his batting average rebounds in 2011.

The Gut

No, not Denard's gut; my gut. As in: I just really believe Denard Span is going to have a very good season.

Denard is a young, talented ballplayer, who brings a decent glove, good speed, and great patience to center field and the top of our lineup. He's coming off a bad season, granted, but both scouting and his underlying statistics suggest that the drop-off was not the result of a change in approach or poor mechanics from Denard.

While I hate to simply use the "L" word to defend a player's bad season, I do believe Span suffered from some pretty bad luck in 2010. Assuming he continues to make solid contact, I think there is every reason to believe Span will see a significantly higher share of his balls in play turn into hits in 2011. This will translate into a higher batting average, which, combined with Span's excellent plate discipline, will translate into an extremely effective ballplayer.

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