Removing Denard Span from the Nationals' leadoff spot is long overdue

Christian Petersen

Since being acquired from the Minnesota Twins, Denard Span has managed just a .320 OBP. While he provides gold-glove caliber defense in center field, he continues to be miscast as the leadoff man.

The subject of Matt Williams tinkering with the lineup has been brought up frequently this season. He's penciled in Ian Desmond in four different spots in the order. He's had Danny Espinosa start games in four different spots in the order (Espinosa has come in as a replacement in two other spots). Anthony Rendon has actually started a game in all eight (non-pitcher) spots in the order, and even has a pinch-hitting appearance in that ninth spot.

There are a few guys that Williams won't move. One is Jayson Werth, who seems to be glued to the third spot (2 starts at cleanup). Another would be the currently injured Adam LaRoche, who has hit in the cleanup spot in all but one of his starts this season. Finally, there's Denard Span in the leadoff spot. Well... At least two of those three might make sense.

When Span was acquired for Alex Meyer during the 2012-13 offseason, there were two primary things that the Nats were looking to acquire in the deal. One was an elite defensive center fielder (check). The other was a legitimate leadoff man for a club that sorely lacked one (ummm... maybe). Regardless of your definition of what a leadoff man should truly be doing, Span has been below average (save for a six week stretch late last season) in the role. I'm not saying that Span doesn't belong in the lineup, because he does (his glove alone makes his spot in the lineup worthwhile). However, it's long past time to drop him in the order.

Let's start by examining what we should have been expecting from Span. Then we'll move on to what we should be expecting from the leadoff spot.

What Should We Have Been Expecting When The Nats Acquired Span?

First off, let's look at his major league numbers by season.

Season Team AVG OBP SLG wOBA
2008 Twins .294 .387 .432 .363
2009 Twins .311 .392 .415 .359
2010 Twins .264 .331 .348 .307
2011 Twins .264 .328 .359 .308
2012 Twins .283 .342 .395 .325
2013 Nationals .279 .327 .380 .313
2014 Nationals .241 .287 .338 .278
Total 2 Team .281 .348 .385 .326

It was brought up on another post last night that Span has a .348 OBP for his career, and that we'd all love to see him get back to that career rate. Are those numbers lying to us a bit, though? When Span first reached the majors in 2008, he lit the world on fire, turning in a .294/.387/.432 triple slash line in 411 plate appearances. While those numbers were unexpected, he backed it up with an equally impressive line (.311/.392/.415) in his second season over 676 PAs. Great start!

He hasn't been the same guy since. His 2010-2012 seasons were certainly nothing to sneeze at, but his OBP ranged from .328 to .342 in that span (ugh... was trying to avoid that pun). While his career triple slash line was .284/.357/.389 prior to joining the Nats, it was heavily carried by those first two seasons. From 2010-2012, he slashed .271/.334/.367... 806 PA into his tenure with the Nats, here are Span's numbers: .272/.320/.373. The average and slugging look good, but there's something missing here....

What Happened To The Walks?

Season Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Zone%
2008 Twins 18.8% 58.1% 39.9% 53.8%
2009 Twins 21.9% 54.3% 39.5% 54.3%
2010 Twins 20.0% 55.0% 39.4% 55.5%
2011 Twins 21.8% 54.3% 41.0% 59.0%
2012 Twins 20.0% 55.4% 39.1% 54.1%
2013 Nationals 28.1% 57.4% 43.2% 51.5%
2014 Nationals 27.7% 59.7% 44.4% 52.3%
Total - - - 22.3% 55.8% 40.5% 54.2%

Even though Span's numbers dropped in his final three years in Minnesota, he did maintain one of the more crucial elements of a leadoff hitter. His walk rate of 11.0% in those two great years dipped down to an acceptable 8.5% over the next three. It never dropped below 8.3% in any season, though, which led to a slightly above average OBP from the leadoff spot despite the .271 average. He's actually batting a point higher in his tenure in DC than he did in those final three seasons in Minnesota. Unfortunately, he's just not drawing as many walks. Last season saw a career low 6.3% (2 whole percentage points), and he's right on pace to match that career low again this season. This accounts for the 14 point dip in his OBP the past two seasons, which has taken him from a slightly above average OBP in the leadoff spot to a bit below average.  So why is this happening?

He's certainly expanded the zone a lot more in these past two seasons than he ever did in Minnesota, which is definitely going to limit his walk total and tell pitchers that they don't necessarily have to throw strikes to get him out. As we can see above, Span never had an O-Swing% by PITCHf/x that was above 21.9% in his tenure in Minnesota. He swung at 28.1% of pitches out of the zone in 2013, and he's chasing an awful lot again, at 27.7% early on in 2014. This is a troubling trend that we even saw in his great (overall) plate appearance in the 9th inning today. He worked a ten pitch walk, but he swung at two full count pitches that were out of the zone and fouled them off before drawing that walk.

Since I bring up the chase percentage, it's worth noting that he's swinging at more strikes than he ever did in Minnesota as well. His Z-Swing% (swings at pitches in the strike zone) was 57.4% last year (2 points higher than every season outside of his rookie year) and it's ballooned up to 59.7% this year. As you would expect from these numbers, his (overall) swing rate (43.2% last year, 44.4% this year) is well above his career rate of 40.5%. As you would also expect, he's seeing less pitches in the strike zone per PITCHf/x (51.5% last year... 52.3% this year... 54.2% career) than he ever saw in Minnesota. If you show you're going to chase, guys aren't going to throw it over the plate as often.

So yeah..... He's definitely expanding the zone, which is going to lead to fewer walks and more balls that are put in play (and weaker contact when he's hitting pitches out of the strike zone). It all adds up. Now let's take a look at the old and new(er) school line of thinking regarding the leadoff spot and how Span fits in with each of them

The Old Leadoff School Of Thought: Wreak Havoc on the Basepaths

I suppose that there are two primary schools of thought on what a leadoff man should be doing. The traditional old school line of thinking is that the leadoff man should be a threat on the basepaths. He should not only be capable of stealing a base, but he should "get in the pitcher's head" (yes.... feed the narrative!) as well, forcing rushed deliveries from the stretch that should lead to more mistake pitches being thrown to the hitters behind him. While I lean more towards the newer school of thought (see below), I'll bite on the speed and baserunning statistics. Let's have a look.

Span has stolen 24 bases in 30 attempts over the past two seasons (4 for 4 this season), which is good for an 80% success rate. While the sheer volume of stolen bases certainly isn't in line with an Eric Young or Everth Cabrera, the Nats were 17th in the majors with 21 SB from the leadoff spot last season (20 of which were Span's). 80% is a bit above the norm in Stolen Base Percentage, so he's done well in this regard.

While it's difficult to quantify how much of an effect Span has on the pitcher simply by being on base (when he reaches), I guess it's notable that Werth is batting .333 with runners on (.305 overall). LaRoche (.319 overall... .317 with runners on) is hitting about the same with or without baserunners on in front of him. Rendon, who has occupied the #2 spot lately, is hitting 21 points lower (.262 vs. .283) with runners on base. As a team, the Nats are batting just .238/.310/.365 with runners on base (.261/.320/.425 with the bases empty.... this is a topic for a later date, as you would believe that teams should actually hit better with pitchers having to throw from the stretch!), so I'm not going to give the "wreak havoc on the basepaths" argument any more space than I already have.

The New(er) School Of Thought: Just Get On Base, Will Ya!

Of course, the more new school approach to what a leadoff man should be doing will tell you that Span might be more successful in providing that "speed threat" on the basepaths if he could get on base more often. This line of thinking says that a leadoff man's primary goal should be to, you know, get on base! Relative to the rest of the league, has Span done that?

Last season, the MLB average triple slash line from the #1 spot in the order was .265/.328/.391. Span wasn't far off (.279/.327/.380), as he actually had a better batting average and a slightly lower slugging percentage. While his OBP was right in line with the league average, we can once again see from the slash line that his walk rate was a bit low for the leadoff spot. Span walked 42 times in 662 plate appearances last season (6.3%), which was 17 fewer walks than the average team total from the leadoff spot (59)*.

* In the 18 games Span wasn't in the leadoff spot in 2013, the Nats drew 14 walks (Harper 8, Kobernus 4, Werth 1, Hairston 1)

This season is obviously a small sample size, as it's May 14. However, the current average triple slash line from the leadoff spot (.265/.329/.393) is similar to last season. The Nationals have had Span in the leadoff spot in 32 of their 39 games (all but the 7 that he's missed). His triple slash line (.241/.287/.338) is actually a touch better (save for the slugging percentage) than the Nats' team total of .232/.282/.363. That OBP ranks 29th among the 30 MLB teams from the leadoff spot, ahead of only the Cincinnati Reds (.279). Of course, the Reds have the excuse that they're breaking in rookie Billy Hamilton (.260/.297/.385) as their leadoff man... and that he missed about a week and a half himself. Six teams (Tampa Bay, Seattle, San Diego, Cleveland, Washington, Cincinnati) have a sub-.300 OBP from the leadoff spot so far this season. Each of those teams has either dealt with an injury that's cost their primary leadoff man more than a week or changed their primary leadoff man already.

Add It Up

The baserunning has actually been a bit better than I expected. Without looking at the raw numbers, I wouldn't have guessed that Span has been as efficient as he has as a base-stealer. That doesn't make up for the fact that he's getting on base at a well below average rate this season, and as I'll point out below, the Nats are the perfect type of team for a non-traditional leadoff man. They're power-driven and deep, with just about anyone (save for Span) capable of letting a runner jog home from first base if he can just... you know... get there.

OK... Am I Going To Provide A Solution?

For me, the obvious rule of thumb is that clubs should try to maximize their plate appearances from their best hitters. Statistically speaking, Span was the Nationals eighth best hitter among regulars last season.

Name AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR Off
Jayson Werth .318 .398 .532 .403 160 0.3 36
Bryce Harper .274 .368 .486 .371 137 1.8 22.6
Ryan Zimmerman .275 .344 .465 .353 125 2.8 20.7
Ian Desmond .280 .331 .453 .341 116 3.3 15.4
Wilson Ramos .272 .307 .470 .337 114 -3.7 1.1
Adam LaRoche .237 .332 .403 .321 103 -0.8 0.9
Anthony Rendon .265 .329 .396 .318 100 0.9 1.1
Denard Span .279 .327 .380 .313 97 2.4 0.2

Among the regulars (yes... Zimmerman, LaRoche, and Harper are currently out), Span's OBP ranked 7th, his slugging ranked 8th, and his wOBA ranked 8th. As far as this season goes, counting all players with at least 40 PA...

Name AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR Off
Adam LaRoche .319 .421 .504 .405 160 -2.4 6.6
Jayson Werth .303 .388 .434 .369 135 1.2 7.7
Anthony Rendon .283 .314 .478 .340 115 0.7 3.6
Bryce Harper .289 .352 .422 .339 114 -1.2 0.3
Tyler Moore .205 .279 .462 .325 104 0.2 0.5
Kevin Frandsen .270 .333 .365 .316 98 -1.3 -1.4
Danny Espinosa .235 .276 .445 .311 95 1.1 0.4
Jose Lobaton .253 .325 .373 .309 94 -1.2 -1.8
Ian Desmond .219 .270 .364 .281 75 0.7 -4
Denard Span .241 .287 .338 .278 72 2.5 -2
Sandy Leon .182 .265 .273 .249 53 0.4 -2.3
Nate McLouth .107 .265 .179 .219 32 -0.1 -5.4

Who should bat leadoff for the Nationals? In my mind, it's always been Jayson Werth. He led the team in OBP in 2012 (.387) and 2013 (.398). Yes... I anticipate I'm going to hear quite a bit about his comments after the 2012 season (he actually hit leadoff twice in 2013). I also know that a lot of our readers (and Nats fans everywhere) would like Werth to remain in a "run-producing" spot in the order, saying that he has too much power to waste in the leadoff spot. The thing that makes this team perfect for a "non-traditional" leadoff man is the way that Rizzo has built the roster, though. There's power up and down the lineup!

The lineup literally has seven players capable of hitting 20+ HR (when healthy... heck... the utility infielder who has been forced into regular duty at second base hit 21 HR in 2011). Honestly, scan through these names and tell me I'm wrong:  Werth, Harper, LaRoche, Zimmerman, Desmond, Ramos, Rendon... sure... let's include Espinosa. That's eight!  Every one of those guys is capable of hitting 20+ HR. In fact, outside of Ramos (never had a season with more than 435 PA because of injuries) and Rendon (first full season), every one of those guys have already done so in their career!

So why on earth would you take the worst hitter in the lineup (whose problem, specifically, is that he isn't getting on base at a high rate) and bat him in the spot that's guaranteed to get the most* plate appearances? The lineup is centered around power much more than it's centered around situational hitting (the old "get him on, get him over, get him in" approach.... dropping singles in.... hitting the ball to the right side for "productive outs", etc.), so any baserunner is in scoring position the second he's on base.  There's no need for the "speedy leadoff type." Put the guy who has historically gotten on base the most often atop the order and let the rest of those power hitters behind him (or himself) drive him in!

* While it's rare that no other hitters will have the same amount of plate appearances, barring the leadoff man being removed from a game, nobody else can have more plate appearances than he does.

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