Ted Leavengood: In Span, Nats have a glove of a different kind

Denard Span is no Michael Morse. Morse had the kung-fu warm-up cut - immortalized in his bobblehead - and there was his A-Ha walk-up music. Span had large shoes to fill on many levels. It did not get easier when Morse ripped up the Cactus League for nine home runs and a .357 batting average in spring training. It was reminiscent of the 2011 spring when he had his breakout season, hitting .303 with 31 home runs. There were more than a few call-ins to radio shows bemoaning the loss of Morse and asking exactly what this new guy Span could do.

When Morse hit six homers in the early going, it looked as though there was nothing Span could do to make fans forget Mikey. Span hit over .300 for much of April and his OBP was in excess of .400. Not good enough. Fans come to see the longball and Span is not going to deliver on that score very often. He had only four last year. And Span’s walk-up music is a rap melody that few would recognize, much less be able to hum along.

No, the difference between Span and Morse comes out only in advanced metrics for overall player performance. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) takes into account both defensive prowess as well as offensive contribution. Span is one of the elite center fielders in the game.

Comparisons of Span’s WAR and Morse’s provides a quick tutorial in why Span is the better ballplayer overall. In his best year, 2011, Morse had a total WAR of 3.4. His offensive WAR was 4.1, but his defensive WAR was a minus-1.6 that year. Morse is slow and does not have a power arm.

Span, by contrast, had his best season in 2012 with a 5.1 WAR. His contributions as a leadoff hitter for the Twins garnered him a 3.0 offensive WAR, but it was his defense where the numbers shine. His defensive WAR was 2.4. There is a 4.0 swing in WAR when you combine the minus-1.6 of Morse with Span’s 2.4. The difference between Morse and Span is equivalent to some super-stud center fielder better even than anyone currently playing.

This weekend, Span put a human face on all the advanced metrics that precious few understand. On Saturday, the Nationals were cruising behind a rare quality start by Dan Haren. The score was 6-1 Nats after Shin-Soo Choo homered to start the sixth inning. Then Zack Cozart had a single and there were still no outs. The crowd grew a little restless, remembering how quickly Haren had melted down in prior starts. Joey Votto was at the plate and he could make the score 6-3 in a heartbeat, which is what he tried to do.

Votto took a Haren pitch deep into the left-center gap. It looked to have the distance for a home run, but Span got an excellent read on the ball from the minute it left the bat. He tracked the ball down perfectly, slowed to maximize his leap and jumped to the top of the outfield wall and pulled the tiny white orb in just before it hit the top of the wall. The ball could have left the yard or just been a run-scoring double, but either way, the catch by Span changed the course of the inning and possibly the game.

After the inning as Span approached the dugout, the crowd stood and applauded. But that was just the beginning. In the seventh inning, Zach Duke replaced Haren. Duke struggled and allowed a single run to make the score 6-2 Nats. But with two outs, he walked Choo to load the bases. Cozart ripped a ball into the gap and even Davey Johnson admitted after the game that he assumed at that point that three runs were going to score. But once again, Span read the ball perfectly. He raced the ball to its landing point and won by a whisker, taking it in almost effortlessly. He saved the inning, the game and the win for Haren and received an even larger round of standing applause when he came off the field at the end of the seventh.

Span was the player of the game Saturday and it is just the first time that fans will get an illustrated tutorial in why general manager Mike Rizzo wanted Span on this team. He will not hit 31 home runs. He will just get on base and score runs at the top of the order. But more important, and perhaps more dramatic for fans, will be his eye-popping grabs in the outfield that save games at key junctures in the season.

None of us understand what WAR really means, but I think we are going to learn to like Span playing center field for the Nationals.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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