Stuart Wallace: Digging deeper into Span's slow start at the plate

On a team that has sputtered defensively to start the 2014 season, Nationals center fielder Denard Span is a playmaking oasis in a desert of bad hops, errant throws and generally poor defensive showings. Currently leading the team in the defensive statistics ultimate zone rating and defensive runs saved, Span has few peers in the outfield or across baseball in general when it comes to his skills with the glove. With the bat, however, the reviews aren't as glowing for Span, especially this year.

While his hitting skills will never be confused with power-hitting teammates like Bryce Harper or Adam LaRoche, or even with the keen-eyed Anthony Rendon, Span's hitting has always been sufficient for someone in the leadoff spot, despite not having particularly strong stolen base numbers (even with above average speed and baserunning skills) or walk rates. With power lacking in his offensive game, Span has survived by displaying respectable contact rates, not striking out much, and putting the ball on the ground and using his speed to generate on base percentages (OBP) and weighted on base percentages (wOBA) that fall around league average.

Throughout his tenure with the Minnesota Twins and into his first season as a National, this approach has served Span well. However, this year has seen Span off to a slow start, hitting at a .270 wOBA to go along with a .287 OBP. While some of the start can be explained by a trip to the seven-day disabled list with a concussion, there are still signs of Span's already narrow margin of error with respect to being offensively productive becoming even narrower.

Looking at both his OBP and wOBA, we find values that fall far below league average, with both average for both stat hovering around .320; averages for both for center fielders is slightly higher, at roughly .320. Comparing 2014 OBP and wOBA to his career averages, we find Span's OBP 62 points lower and his wOBA 57 points lower than what has been seen throughout his career. Reading the OBP/wOBA tea leaves, we find a player who is not only not getting on base, but is also seeing what little power he had dwindling. Given Span's subpar ability to draw walks and steal bases, this is a potentially concerning trend.

Looking deeper into Span's batted ball data, we find another concerning trend: a drop in ground ball-to-fly ball ratio, currently at 1.48, down from last season's 2.38 mark and his career 2.11 ratio. Along with this is a career-high 31.4 percent fly ball ratio as well as a respectable 22.1 percent line drive rate, all of which point to Span still hitting the ball hard in the form of a slightly above-average line drive rate, but also putting him in less favorable positions to use his speed to leg out some hits or even get the occasional seeing-eye single that many ground balls find themselves turning into during the course of a season.

Looking at infield hit rates, his 2014 average of 5.0 percent is a hair down from last year's 7.1 percent rate and his career rate of 7.4 percent. While only possessing one bunt hit so far this season, going 1-for-2 in the category, he does hold a 28.6 percent success rate over his career bunting for a hit. Briefly looking at contact tendencies, we find Span's numbers for 2014 consistent with career averages, with a contact rate in the low-90% percent range, with a slight uptick in his tendency to swing at pitches in general, up to 46 percent compared to a career average of 40.8 percent. One small concern lies on his swinging strike rate in this year, currently sitting at 4.1 percent, compared to his 2013 and career average of 3.5 percent; while this rate is still very low compared to his contemporaries, this slight increase in swing-and-miss tendencies could be exacerbated to a greater extent compared to other hitters, given Span's offensive game predicated upon contact and speed.

In the end, there are some slightly discouraging trends looking at Span's offensive numbers, but small sample sizes still reign here, even as we turn our calendars to May. Span has 109 plate appearances as of the end of Sunday's game and many of the statistics considered do take some time to stabilize, in particular, on base percentage and extra-base hit rates; those looking for Span to turn a corner and begin to produce - even at 2013 levels - should hold out hope that the declines seen might simply be statistical noise more so than any indication that Span's offensive output is of concern. That being said, the incorporation of additional methods of getting on base, in particular, bunting for a hit, into Span's approach could be an attractive and quick method of generating more offense in light of some potential deterioration of his table-setting abilities atop the Nationals lineup.

Stuart Wallace blogs about the Nationals at District Sports Page. Follow him on Twitter: @TClippardsSpecs. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. 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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