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.