A Hesitant Denard Span

I mentioned  recently on the Phil Naessens Show that I thought I was slightly more statistically inclined then the rest of the Knuckleballs gang and that I’d be trying out some additional stats-based analysis in the near future.  Here is my first attempt at looking beyond the numbers.

Denard Span will probably never again be the player he was in 2008 and 2009.   When he broke onto the scene as an everyday player with the Minnesota Twins he was hitting the snot out of the ball (with 14 home runs during those first two seasons, and only 5 since then, in just slightly more plate appearances), reaching base almost 40% of the time, and playing spectacular defense.  As a reward for his first two successful years, Span signed a 5-year $16.5 million dollar deal in 2010.  2012 marks the first year that Span will make multiple million dollars (3 million, to be precise) and there are still more than $11 million dollars left on his deal for 2013 and 2014, plus an option year at $9 million.  Span could earn almost $20 million more dollars before his next contract has to be negotiated.

Keiunta Denard Span

Right now, Span is hitting .298 and reaching base at a .351 clip.  Both of those numbers represent improvements over 2010 and 2011, and yet, his .715 OPS is almost exactly league average.  The other night in a GameChat, Thrylos98 wondered if “Keiunta” had been struggling lately.  I started digging around Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com looking for recent splits and performance tables and was able to confirm the suspicion, Denard Span has not been doing much of anything over the past two weeks.  He’s hitting only .205 with 8 hits (all singles) in his last 44 plate appearances.  Despite all of that, he’s hitting .298!  Span could simply jump out of his slump and become the high average, high on-base guy he was when he first joined the club, but looking at some of the underlying statistics, it is far more likely that he’ll hit .260/.310/.350.  He’ll be valuable more for what he does with his glove than his bat and with a line like that, he’s certainly not worth the $20 million dollars that could be headed his way.

In Span’s first two seasons with the Twins he walked in 12.2% and 10.4% of his plate appearances.  That number dropped to about 8.5% over the past two seasons, and in his first 29 games of 2012, his walk percentage sits at a career low 7.6% (MLB average is usually between 8% and 9% so Span has went from well above average to below).  While Span has historically shown above average plate discipline, striking out in just 12.5% of his plate appearances over his career, he’s striking out at the worst rate of his career in 2012, 15.3%.  Obviously a small sample size disclaimer exists here, as Span has only 131 plate appearances this year, but Span hasn’t done anything recently (4 walks and 7 strikeouts in the last two weeks) to make anyone think he’s likely to turn things around quickly.

A decrease in walks and an increase in strikeouts present problems by themselves, but are really symptoms of a larger issue.  In Span’s case, he’s hesitant at the plate.  He’s looking at more pitches than he ever has (61%), and he’s swinging at the first pitch less than ever (14% in 2012 compared to a career rate of 21%).  That’s a shame because Span hits .367 on the first pitch of an at bat over the course of his career!  Part of that could be the way that teams are pitching to him on the first pitch, but he’s hit .357 or better during three of his first four years in the league, and never worse than .329 until 2012, so it is unlikely that teams suddenly realized Denard Span was an excellent first pitch hitter.

And yet, here is Denard Span, hitting just a tick under .300 and he’s on base more than a third of the times he comes up to bat!  One of the biggest reasons why Span is still performing at or near league average is because of an abnormally high BABIP of .356.  A high BABIP means Span is getting luckier than an average player, turning hit baseballs into hits more frequently than 80% of the league.  The league average for BABIP in 2012 is just .290, and Span has been within three percentage points of league average the last two seasons, so he’ll likely regress to a number closer to .300.

My advice to Terry Ryan, Ron Gardenhire and the rest of the Twins’ front office: Trade Denard Span before his performance really slumps and the $11+ million dollars left on his contract make him a liability on the open market.