After posting a stellar .311/.392/.415 out of the leadoff spot last year and signing a 4-year extension, expectations were high for Denard Span this year as the primary table-setter for the middle of the order. Thus far this season, Span has only managed a .275/.342/.362 line, which isn't horrendously awful but is a significant drop in production. His best month this season was May, where he posted a fantastic .353/.403/.462 line and scored 21 runs. As good as May was, July was just as awful, however, as Span slumped to a .245/.315/.265 line for the month, good for a putrid .580 OPS . Sure, everyone hits rough patches in any season, but surely we should expect more. Is there anything underlying these numbers that could give us any insight into Span's problems at the plate?
Theory 1: He's tired.
Could there be anything to this? Last year, through the beginning of August, Span had only compiled 346 total plate appearances. This year, he has 478, and only 4 players in the majors have more. As the everyday CF and leadoff hitter, Span's gotten fewer days off than anyone else on the team. Jason Repko has been used more in July to give Span a rest, but it's unclear if this has had any effect. However, Span did respond to two days off on July 25 and 26 (which, now that I look at it, was related to illness, but days off nonetheless) by going 2 for 4 and 3 for 5 in his next two games, and seems to have carried a little of his late July momentum into August. Related? Hard to say, but it's possible he's just wearing down a little and could benefit from an more frequent day of rest here and there.
Theory 2: He's been unlucky.
Generally the accepted way of assessing "luck" in hitting performance is taking a look at batting average on balls in play (BABIP). In Span's case, there might be something here. His BABIP on the season so far is .303, which is actually right around league average. So that's not the culprit, right? Maybe, maybe not. Some players over their career consistently put up higher than league average BABIP (often what you might think of as "speed" guys, such as Jeter and Ichiro who leg out a lot of infield hits), and Span's career BABIP is .333. His line drive rate is down slightly, which can decrease BABIP as well, but it's only down to 17.8% from 18.8% last year, probably not enough to account for a thirty-point drop by itself. Breaking BABIP down even further by batted ball type, we see the following:
|Batted Ball Type||Span BABIP||League Average|
This is sort of a roundabout way of getting at a stat called Expected BABIP (xBABIP) that looks at batted ball types and predicts what we should expect a player's BABIP to be in a luck-neutral environment. Interestingly, Span's xBABIP for 2010 comes out to .333, right at his career average. It seems, then, that bad luck might be partly to blame for his low mark this year, and certainly having some more hits drop in would boost his average and OBP. I'm not going to fall into the trap of saying that an unlucky BABIP is the whole culprit in this case, and Span hasn't been as "unlucky" as some, but I'd expect things to come around slightly in this regard.
Theory 3: He's lost some of his plate discipline.
The first and most obvious thing that might lead you to this conclusion is Span's decreased walk rate, down to 9% this year from 12.2% in 2008 and 10.4% last year. True, he's not walking as much, but the flip side of that coin is that his strikeout rate is 11.1%, also a career low. This translates to a BB/K mark that stands at 0.91, the best he's ever posted. So is he swinging at more bad pitches? Yes and no. Take a look at his plate discipline stats from FanGraphs:
Yes, his O-swing rate (balls swung at outside the zone) is up, but his O-contact rate (making contact outside the zone) is up even more. This fits in with the decrease in strikeouts. He's swinging at slightly more pitches overall, but not a significant amount, and he's making better contact than he ever has. Thus, I don't think there much we can point to in terms of his approach at the plate that would help explain his depressed numbers.
So what's going on with Denard Span? It's probably a little bit of both 1 and 2: he's probably a little fatigued, and he's not seeing some balls drop for hits that he's gotten the last few seasons. But for all the number-crunching that we like to do, it could be just a good old-fashioned slump, that inexplicable period that occurs with all baseball players where nothing is going right and there seems to be no good reason why. As Yogi Berra put it when asked if he was going through one, “Slump? I ain't in no slump. I just ain't hitting.” There have been a few encouraging signs in the last few weeks that Span is ready to start hitting, and for an offense that has been running on all cylinders recently (barring last night's four hit effort) even without Mauer, Morneau or Hudson, things should only get better once the starting lineup is intact again. Let's hope Span can get back the spark at the top of the order.