The Case for Denard Span
Denard Span is no Michael Morse. Morse had the Kung-fu warm up cut–immortalized in his bobble-head doll—and there was his A-Ha walk-up music. Denard Span had large shoes to fill on many levels. It did not get easier when Morse ripped up the Cactus League for 9 home runs and a .357 batting average in March. It was reminiscent of the 2011 spring when he had his break out season, hitting .303 with 31 home runs. There were more than a few call-in radio shows bemoaning the loss of Morse and asking exactly what this new guy Span could do?
When Morse hit six homers in the early going this season it looked hopeless for Denard Span. Nothing was going to make fans forget Mikey. Span hit over .300 for much of April and his OBP was in excess of .400. Not good enough. Fans come to see the long ball and Span is not going to deliver on that score very often. He had only four last year. And Span’s walk-up music is a rap melody that few would recognize, much less be able to hum along.
No, the difference between Denard Span and Michael Morse comes out only in advanced metrics for overall player performance. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) takes into account both defensive prowess as well as offensive contribution. Denard Span is one of the elite center fielders in the game.
Comparisons of Span’s WAR and Morse’s provides a quick tutorial in why Span is the better ball player overall. In his best year, 2011, Morse had a total WAR of 3.4. His offensive WAR was 4.1, but his defensive WAR was a minus 1.6 that year. Morse is slow and does not have a power arm.
Span by contrast had his best season in 2012 with a 5.1 WAR. His contributions as a lead-off hitter for the Minnesota Twins garnered him a 3.0 offensive WAR, but it was his defense where the numbers shine. His defensive WAR was 2.4. There is a 4.0 swing in WAR when you combine the negative 1.6 of Morse with Span’s 2.4. The difference between Morse and Span is equivalent to some super stud center fielder better even than anyone currently playing.
This weekend Denard Span put a human face on all the advanced metrics that precious few understand. On Saturday the Nationals were cruising behind a rare quality start by Dan Haren. The score was 6-1 Nats after Shin-soo Choo homered to start the sixth inning. Then Zack Cozart had a single and there no outs. The crowd grew a little restless remembering how quickly Haren had melted down in prior starts. Joey Votto was at the plate and he could make the score 6-3 in a heartbeat, which is what he tried to do.
Votto took a Haren pitch deep into the left center gap. It looked to have the distance for a home run, but Span got an excellent read on the ball from the minute it left the bat. He tracked the ball down perfectly, slowed to maximize his leap and jumped to the top of the outfield wall and pulled the tiny white orb in just before it hit the top of the wall. The ball could have left the yard or just been a run-scoring double, but either way the catch by Span changed the course of the inning and possibly the game.
After the inning as Span approached the dugout, the crowd stood and applauded. But that was just the beginning. In the seventh inning, Zach Duke replaced Haren. Duke struggled and allowed a single run to make the score 6-2 Nats. But with two out he walked Shin-soo Choo to load the bases. Zach Cozart ripped a ball into the gap and even Davey Johnson admitted after the game that he assumed at that point that three runs were going to score. But once again Denard Span read the ball perfectly. He raced the ball to its landing point and won by a whisker, taking it in almost effortlessly. He saved the inning, the game and the win for Dan Haren and received an even larger round of standing applause when he came off the field at the end of the seventh.
Denard Span was the player of the game on Saturday and it is just the first time that fans will get an illustrated tutorial in why Mike Rizzo wanted Span on the team. He will not hit 31 home runs. He will just get on base and score runs at the top of the order. But more important, and perhaps more dramatic for fans, will be his eye-popping grabs in the outfield that save games at key junctures in the season. None of us really understand what WAR means, but I think we are going to learn to like Denard Span playing center field for the Nationals.