In Defense of Denard

24 Aug

also available at www.SethSpeaks.net

With Nick Punto out with injury so much this second half, it appears that some Twins fans feel the need to find a new player to bash for any and all reasons. It appears that that guy is Denard Span, at least for the foreseeable future. Some of it is earned. He is not having a good season by the high standards he set in his first two seasons. His OPS+ of 122 in 93 games in 2008, and his 114 OPS+ in 145 games in 2009 were remarkable standards. An OPS+ of 100 is league average, so he was well above that with OPS of .819 and .807. In 119 games so far in 2010, his OPS is .691, and his OPS+ is at 88.

I don’t think OPS is the best stat to look at when looking at a leadoff hitter. Most leadoff hitters do not have the power to have a high slugging percentage which is half of the OPS equation. However, I believe that the On-Base Percentage half of the OPS equation is very important for a leadoff hitter. After posting OBP of .387 and .392 his first two seasons, his OBP is just .337 in 2010. That is significant.

Defensively, we knew he wasn’t Carlos Gomez in centerfield. He certainly wasn’t going to be like Torii Hunter or Kirby Puckett out there. That said, I think we all assumed that he would be better than he has been. Too many times he has been tentative. Carlos Gomez was horrible at running routes to fly balls, but his incredible speed more than made up for it. Kirby Puckett wasn’t as fast as Denard Span, but he got tremendous reads on fly balls and too charge of centerfield. Outfielders are going to make errors. They all have a couple of bad drops throughout a season, and lose a ball or three in the lights/sun/high sky. It happens. However, Span did such a nice job in the corner outfield positions his first two years that the move to center field should have been easier.

And Span’s base running has not been terribly good or smart. He has been picked off more than a half-dozen times. That really wasn’t an issue his first two seasons, although as someone who monitors the minor leagues, it was definitely an issue for him throughout his minor league career, including in AAA.

So, has it been a particularly good year for the Twins leadoff hitter and centerfielder? Not at all. Not even an optimist like me can spin it to make it look like Span is having a good 2010 campaign. But there are several things to consider before judging too harshly, or at least some numbers that you may want to consider, just food for thought.

Let’s start with the offense, and I looked at a few numbers to compare Span to. I didn’t compare him to other centerfielders. That doesn’t make much sense. I mean, to compare Span to someone like Josh Hamilton doesn’t make a lot of sense. He’s a #3 hitter. So, I compared Span’s numbers in 2010 to those of other leadoff hitters in 2010. Actually what I did was compared Twins leadoff hitters to other leadoff hitters around baseball, with the understanding that Span has been the team’s leadoff hitter in about 95% of their games.

OPS – .701 ranks 17th among the 30 teams.

OBP – .337 ranks 14th among the 30 teams.

IsoD – .071 ranks 10th in the league.

GB/FO – The 1.26 ground outs to fly outs is 7th in the league.

So again, Denard Span has some disappointing numbers compared to his numbers in previous season. No question about that. However, I think that when we take a look at the production compared to league average leadoff hitters, we see something different. He has been very average in 2010. His OPS is just below the middle of the pack. Again, when power is factored in, his numbers aren’t as high. Consider that he may have lost two or three home run balls in centerfield, and realize that he already has a career high in doubles and seven triples, and those numbers could be a little higher. On base percentage is huge, and he has taken a large step back. However, he is right about average among the league’s centerfielders. I thought looking at his Isolated Discipline would make sense too. That is simply his on-base percentage minus his batting average. In the two previous seasons, Span was at .093 and then .081. This year it is down to .071 which is still not bad at all, and it is still in the top third in baseball. It also indicates that his lower numbers are directly attributable to batting average. A leadoff hitter should ground out more than he flies out. It is cliché, but you want speed guys to hit the ball hard and low, and he is doing that.

How about his defense? And, I am still one who is skeptical of any defensive metrics, but many are starting to buy into them. UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and UZR/150 seem to be the metrics that more and more are subscribing too (and you can find them and many more stats at fangraphs.com). Let’s look at how Denard Span compares to other centerfielders around baseball:

UZR (0 is average) – 2.6 – this is 8th among regular starting centerfielders and above average.

UZR/150 – 3.9 – this is also 8th in the league.

RZR – .940 – according to this, Span is #2 in baseball among CF.

To add a little perspective to those numbers, Torii Hunter’s UZR this year is -3.9, and his UZR/150 is -5.5. Matt Kemp is by far the worst with a UZR of -15.6 and a UZR/150 of -21.2. Again, certainly not a great or elite center fielder, but Denard Span, by these metrics, is playing at a slightly better than average level.

Last night in the reactionary or over-reactionary social media form of Twitter, many Twins fans were talking about the fact that Denard Span didn’t make a leaping catch at the wall that turned out to be a double. Would Torii Hunter have caught it? Maybe. Would Carlos Gomez have caught it? Probably. But in this one case, Span didn’t make the catch. Should he have? That’s debatable. Twitter was all a-Twitter with people bashing Span (again!), and that’s the point where I started realizing that he has become the new Nick Punto. If making leaping catches at the wall have become expectations, then I definitely think that we have been spoiled as Twins fans by the CF defense.

Has Denard Span had a good 2010 season? Of course not. No one is insinuating that he has. He wouldn’t tell you that he’s happy with his season. Has it been disappointing year for him? Absolutely.

But should Twins fans give up on him? Of course not!! He’s 26 years old. He has been one of the best leadoff hitters in the game the last two years. Right now, he is in a funk both offensively and defensively as well as on the base paths. It’s not pretty, but the Twins would be crazy to quit on such a talent, such an athlete. He will be just fine.

As I said on last night’s SethSpeaks.net Weekly Minnesota Twins podcast, he has been one of the more disappointing members of the team this year. I would put Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and the Twins medical and training staff ahead of him.  But I did note that for the Twins to win the AL Central and advance, Span will have to pick it up. It would be great if for the final four weeks of the season, Span can find his 2009 form and be a force at the top of the order. He is absolutely capable of it. He has done if before and will again.

What do you think? Is this just me being too positive again? Have you given up on him?

Here are some notes from Monday’s minor league games:

  • Rochester 0, Lehigh Valley 7 (6 innings) – This game was rained out after six innings, and based on how well it was going for the Red Wings, that is just fine. Cole DeVries was called up to make the start in place of the promoted Nick Blackburn. He went 2.1 innings and gave up three earned runs on four hits and two walks. He struck out three. Jose Lugo then gave up three runs on four hits and five walks in 1.2 innings. Tim Lahey then gave up one run on three hits and two walks in 1.1 innings. The Red Wings managed six hits, and Erik Lis hit a double.
  • Beloit 6, Burlington 4 – James Beresford went 3-4 with a walk and his 18th double. Wang-Wei Lin hit his fifth and sixth doubles. Steve Liddle added his 12th home run. Clint Dempster started and gave up four runs (2 earned) on seven hits and a walk. He struck out three in five innings. Brad Stillings came on and gave up one hit and one walk in three scoreless innings. He struck out five. Eliecer Cardenas picked up the save with a scoreless ninth.
  • Elizabethton 9, Bluefield 6 – Danny Ortiz had a big game! He was 3-5 with his 13th doubles, his ninth and tenth homers and four RBI. Oswaldo Arcia went 3-5 with his fourth steal. Kyle Knudson went 2-3 with two walks. Andy Leer was 2-5 with his 14th double. Jean Mijares made the start and gave up two runs on five hits in five innings. He walked just one and struck out nine. Adam Achter made his professional debut and gave up four runs on five hits in 1.1 innings. But of the four outs he got, three came on strikeouts! BJ Hermsen got the next five outs. Jose Gonzalez struck out two in a scoreless inning for his sixth save.
  • New Britain, Ft. Myers and the GCL Twins all had games postponed by rain.

Any questions or comments on the Twins or the minor league system? Feel free to leave your questions and comments here.

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12 Responses to “In Defense of Denard”

  1. Matt August 24, 2010 at 11:34 am #

    This is exactly why defensive sabermetrics need work. Span has a higher UZR than Gomez – Span: 2.6 & Gomez: 1.6 – and a higher UZR/150 than Gomez – Span: 3.9 & Gomez: 2.8. I know that you need to take defensive sabermetrics over a period of a couple years, but it still doesn’t make much sense that players can go from a UZR of +15 to -1.4 in a year like Jack Wilson has done. Normally defense can go up a little or down a little, but how do you explain these UZR values over from 2004 to 2010 for Jack Wilson: 7.8, 14.4, -3.4, 0.4, 7.9, 15.1, and -1.4. I just don’t think that it makes much sense to try and use these references when they really don’t hold much value.

  2. Joel August 24, 2010 at 12:24 pm #

    I think Denard has lost some confidence with his bat and that has translated into his defense. I believe a couple good games will get his head back into the game. Personally, I was more upset about Hudson’s positioning in the first that allowed Hamilton to reach on a weak grounder. That started the big inning that lead to the 2-run triple.

  3. adyacent August 24, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    This reminds me of the story of the guy that was very good at his job, so he keeps getting promoted up and up the ladder, until he reaches a position in which he sucks… and he’s kept there. Span was an excellent corner outfielder, but an average center fielder, and we knew this before this season. Well, he is playing center fielder, and is average.

  4. mike wants wins August 24, 2010 at 1:41 pm #

    Matt, what do you suggest using instead? At least those two stats are attempting to look across all players, play after play. What do you recommend? I have confidence that these stats are better at explaining the relative defensive value of players than any other option we have today.

    Denard has been terrible as a leadoff hitter, and worse if you just judge him as a hitter.

    I also disagree you should compare him to other leadoff hitters. You should compare him to other CFers. He plays CF, that’s what he should be compared to. He’s 12th among CF in OBP. He’s 21st in OPS (and waaaay behind the top 10). He’s 17th in WAR among CFers. He’s not been good. I don’t know who is saying he should be cut (among people you might take somewhat seriously). People are saying he’s not been good this year.

  5. ben August 24, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    Seth,

    First, those dashes are confusing when you were giving defensive metrics. I wasn’t sure if they were minus signs.

    Second, you are probably following the wrong people on twitter.

    Third, it’s difficult to communicate a nuanced opinions on twitter. It’s much easier to say “team sucks, pitcher’s a bum, team will be swept, all gardy’s fault.”

  6. Steve L. August 24, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

    Seth, you got on people for “bashing Span” on Twitter last night, but then you write this article “In Defense of Span” that basically points-out/agrees-with/and-basically-quotes the very tweets those same people were giving out last night. Nobody I saw was giving up on him, they were just doing the exact same thing you’ve done here, which is pointing out how he has been underperforming in 2010. No, I’m not giving up on him, but the criticism of his play is definitely warranted.

  7. Maija August 24, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

    I’m not so sure it is fair to call Denard the new Punto. More like all the hate that used to be rained down on Delmon had to be re-directed elsewhere…

    Remember when everyone was about to give up on Mauer a few months ago? I feel like many fans look at a guy’s numbers while he is slumping and just think that is how the guy is and always will be. I like to remind myself that numbers only measure past performance; they don’t measure future performance. Numbers don’t control the player (unless he lets them).

    Anyway, I think we should start calling Denard “Keiunta” instead.

  8. Jack Torse August 24, 2010 at 5:30 pm #

    I prefer to bash Cuddyear over Span and Punto. His offensive numbers have been absolutely terrible. You cant possibly(literally)find a better spot to produce from anywhere in the majors than where he’s hit all year. He just passed Morneau in RBI’s last week in 40 more games. He’s on pace for 80. He should have 90 already. He gets into more 0-2 counts than anyone i’ve ever seen hitting in an RBI spot. The numbers he has put up are incredibly soft. Until his big hit off Weaver I cannot remember the last big, game changing hit the guy has had. A huge disapointment when you consider his last month of last year. It’s not fair to expect him to post those numbers but something better than career averages would be. He makes 9.4 million. Yes, he’s a team player. He does whatever is asked of him. He seems like a great person. Not many question his character which seems excellent. But I dont think it’s unfair to rip on him or other millionare grown men playing a child’s game when they are underperforming. We all take heat in our chosen professions. Customers/clients dont hesitate to speak their displeasure to the “average joe” like most of us are. Why should they be different? We could choose to do something else, so can they.

    • rover27 August 24, 2010 at 11:36 pm #

      Actually Cuddyer is on a pace to get 70-75 RBIs this year. And he’s hit 4-5-6 in the order all year. Pathetic production!

    • Kunza August 25, 2010 at 7:00 am #

      Amen! Cuddyer absolutely sucks. Thank goodness we’re paying him $10 million next year!

  9. Jim H August 24, 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    To Mike Wants Wins concerning UZR, I would suggest you use nothing. UZR is a flawed stat that implies any number of things about fielders that are wrong more often than right. For instance Punto’s career UZR ranks his best defensive position as SS with 3b 2nd and 2b 3rd. Most who have watched him throughout his career, would likely put his best defensive position as 2b with 3b next and SS last.

    You see this kind of thing all the time with UZR, An older player such Jeter who is likely declining a bit defensively, has a great defensive year last year according to UZR. I think UZR is flawed for any number of reasons. The biggest is that it basically grades every defensive play by where the ball is caught without being able to consider where the player starts from. That is intuitively wrong. Since defensive players move all the time, even within at bats, you can’t determine range based solely on where a ball is caught.

  10. JJ Metz August 25, 2010 at 12:44 am #

    Hadn’t stopped by this blog in a long time, and this reminded me why: Because Seth is the Sid Hartman of bloggers – all kool-aid all the time.
    We get it, Seth, you want to be friends with the Twins players. No one is advocating “giving up” on Span, but nice job creating a straw man so you could stick up for your boy. Maybe he’ll say hi to you at Twins Fest next winter.
    Span has been the team’s least valuable player among regulars, and fans have every right to say so.

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