Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Denard's Patience

School is back in session and you can't help but roam the halls marveling at the changes that took place over the summer. This year, the hot topic is the new girl from New York who nobody can take their eyes off.

I mean, holy cow. Have you see that game-changing speed? Eight steals so far in spring training? And room for power too? She looks like the whole package, except - well, she just doesn't seem to get it, you know? Maybe she's a little too used to being the center of attention and takes things for granted?

And quite suddenly you wonder if all that hubbub hasn't caused you to overlook that girl in American History. You know, the one that you had that thing for in eighth grade, but she was a little too stuck up. And then she started overrating herself, and that turned into a little insecurity, and she just wasn't walking around the same way anymore.

You haven't paid attention to her much, but this year there seems to be something a little more substantial about her. A quiet confidence, or even groundedness, perhaps? Who is she again?

Denard Span has alternated between "overlooked" and "whipping boy" for followers of this organization for several years. Some of that is out of convenience because Span has embodied two of the favorite Twins-critical paradigms. For starters, he's a first round draft pick and a position player, and the Twins have been short on success stories for both recently. Second, he's a light-hitting speedster, and many believe the Twins are too infatuated with "piranhas" like him.

But, to be fair, Span has done his fair share to deserve that criticism. At 24 years old, he's not particularly young, and he hasn't exceeded a 700 OPS since High A ball. With almost no power to speak of, he needs to be an on-base machine that can use his speed, but he's only been average at getting on base in the minors. So Span entered this spring as an aging ex-prospect with career minor league numbers that include a .285 batting average, a .350 on-base percentage and seven home runs over five years.

That's pretty bleak, and would've been a lot bleaker if not for August of last year. You may have read that Span's second half of 2007 was much better than his first half, which gave everyone involved some hope. And you may have read more cynical takes that Span really only had one great month. Both are true, but there might be something more substantial there.

Well, I suppose the optimist could look at that steadily rising batting average and get a little excited, but you can see what has the cynics worried. Span basically had one very good month, and by "very good" I mean he had about a half dozen extra hits fall in. That doesn't erase four years of skepticism.

But this might:

Um, sixteen walks in August, too? That suggests that Span wasn't just finding holes in the field, he was taking substantially different at-bats. That looks a lot like a change in patience, and the skyrocketing OBP looks like a lot like a major league asset.

Now, sometimes with a free-swinging player, they can see a surge like this just because they decide to keep the bat on their shoulder. Pitchers have decided they don't need to throw the player strikes, so the passive batter ends up walking a lot. But the batter also often strikes out a lot as they let quality pitches go past.

But Span's strikeouts in August were also the lowest of any month. Span historically strikes out twice as much as he walks, but in August he walked more than he struck out. That hadn't happend to him in any month for several years.

Now, this doesn't prove he's made an adjustment, but it gave cause for legitimate hope in spring training. Even in the limited at-bats a player has in spring training, you would hope that you would see some similar trends.

And so far, so good. Span has six walks and just three strikeouts. In 31 at-bats, most of which have been as a starter, he's hitting a reasonable .290. But his on-base percentage for the spring is .421. Those numbers look pretty consistent with what happened at the end of last year.

Which isn't to say that you're ready to forget all about that knockout from New York. But it might pay to take a second and third look a that girl you wrote off a couple of years ago. She might be proof that patience really does pay off.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it just as likely that Span is swinging and missing less. That would result in more hits, fewer strikeouts and more walks without any change in approach or patience. Is there some data that actually shows Span is taking more pitches? Because his walks and strikeouts don't really mean that he is.

Anonymous said...

I'm not following the previous comment. If the poster meant that Span is both swinging less and missing less, then the first part of that sounds like he's indeed taking more pitches and being more patient. If the poster meant swinging the same amount but missing less, that doesn't seem to explain the increase in walks.

Anonymous said...

If the poster meant swinging the same amount but missing less, that doesn't seem to explain the increase in walks.

Of course it does.

If you consider he is striking out less, its because he is either not taking strikes or not swinging and missing. You generally reduce strikeouts by swinging the bat more, not less.

There are two possible outcomes to a ball if the hitter swings and makes contact, its either in play or it isn't. If it isn't in play, the pitcher has to throw another pitch which may miss the plate leading to more walks.

You don't get a lot of walks keeping your bat on your shoulder against major league pitchers. When the pitcher is throwing strikes, you get walks by handling those pitches and forcing the pitcher to throw another one.
Eventually he will throw a pitch you can hit or enough pitches that miss the plate to give you a walk.

People put way too much emphasis on not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. The most important thing is to make contact when you do swing.

Anonymous said...

Ah, that's helpful--thanks. I had neglected the outcome of fouling pitches off and the possible increase in walks from doing more of that.

Okay, then that leads to my next (perhaps equally hasty) question: was your original post basically a technical correction to TG's column, or is there a practical difference between Span improving his patience (TG's assumption) and improving his ability to foul off pitches that aren't good to hit? For example, is one of those changes more more likely to be permanent than the other, or more likely to continue at the major league level? Thanks.

brianS said...

Any notion of how league averages move over the course of the season at AAA?

Guys leave for the Majors, get promoted from AA.... So, is there systematic evidence of "seasonality" in AAA performance for guys who are glued at that level for the full season?

I could certainly imagine the pitching context getting easier as the season wears on because the top guys are being skimmed and replaced with AA guys, who seem often to struggle initially.

Anonymous said...

I don't think either is more likely to be permanent. If Span's problem was that he was chasing bad pitches, then having learned to lay off those bad pitches is going to improve his results. If his problem was making contact then being able to make contact more often is going to improve his results. If the change in numbers is just a random variation in results, i.e. luck, then it won't stick.

In any case, the real question is whether he can continue to make adjustments at the major league level. Because its likely he has some weaknesses minor league pitchers weren't always able to exploit. Major league pitchers will be.

SBG said...

Luis Rivas had a couple of good months, too. I'm gonna need to see more.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for noticing, John, when it seems most folks have been going out of their way to write Span off all spring.

All the Twins can do is ask Span to perform like a good lead-off man. Even if it is "just spring", he's been doing it thus far & it deserves to be noticed.

John said...

Luis Rivas had a couple of good months, too. I'm gonna need to see more.

Agreed. We're all going to need to see more. My point is now I have a reason to grant him that attention.

The discipline vs. swinging and missing less.

The original introduction was going to be about how frustrating it is to not be able to watch these games on a regular basis from MN. Without that, it's damn hard to say if Span is better at controling the zone or better at hitting balls in it.

But, I agree with the next point, which is that I don't know that I care. Either way, I see this as a positive sign for his development, and a lot more positive than an extra half dozen hits in a month.

SoCalTwinsfan said...

Span struck out twice today and at least one of them was looking, so now it is six walks and five strikeouts. It doesn't take much to change the results in such limited sample size.