Michael Morse crushed another home run for the Mariners last night, giving the former Nationals slugger six bombs and nine RBIs through the season’s first nine games.
Nationals fans might cringe seeing those totals. Morse, after all, is a guy the Nats traded away this offseason, choosing to go with Denard Span in center, Bryce Harper in left and Adam LaRoche at first base rather than keeping things status quo by leaving Harper in center, Morse in left and LaRoche at first.
General manager Mike Rizzo went out and acquired Span to give the Nats the prototypical leadoff hitter and center fielder he felt they were needing. And while Morse is crushing the ball out in Seattle while Span and LaRoche have combined to hit just two homers and drive in three, I have a feeling Rizzo is plenty happy with how things played out this offseason.
The power numbers are the sexy numbers. Home runs and RBIs are generally what excite most fans. But Span’s defense has been excellent early this season, he’s a threat on the basepaths and his on-base percentage is a ridiculous .484 through seven games. The 29-year-old has reached base in 15 of his 31 plate appearances this season.
Put that on-base percentage directly above Jayson Werth in the batting order, another guy who reaches at a high clip, and you’ve got two table-setters for the big boys in the lineup.
“That’s something that we’ve been missing,” LaRoche said. “Not necessarily a guy that can see pitches; Jayson sees more pitches than anybody in the league, but a guy that’s just constantly on base and a nuisance on the basepaths. We’ve got a small taste of it here the first week, but I think over the course of a year, you’re going to see the difference that can make, having those guys on base all the time.”
The on-base percentage is crucial. The more often Span and Werth can reach ahead of Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, LaRoche, Desmond and the other guys in the Nationals’ order, the more RBI opportunities those hitters will have and the greater chance the Nats will have for big innings.
But the way that Span makes pitchers work shouldn’t be overlooked.
“It’s a combination of the pitches seen and the on-base percentage,” Werth said. “It really sets a tone for the offense. You’ve got a guy like that up top, he’s seeing all those pitches, he’s making the pitcher work. So not only are guys behind him getting a chance to see what the pitcher’s got, but he’s taxing the pitcher. ...
“Over the course of the game, by the time you get to the third time through, the guy’s thrown a lot of meaningful pitches, and hopefully his pitch count’s up and then you get a chance to see that sixth-inning guy, that seventh-inning guy. And over the course of a season, if you see the sixth-inning guy in the bullpen more times than not, you’re giving your team a higher percentage to win than not, because usually the sixth-inning guy in the bullpen, not necessarily in our case, but for most teams, that’s the guy you want to see.”
Yesterday, Span started the bottom of the first inning off by making White Sox starter Jake Peavy throw eight pitches before the Nats center fielder lined out to center. Werth followed by striking out, but he worked Peavy for seven pitches before going down looking.
Just like that, Peavy had already thrown 15 pitches to retire just two hitters. He needed 11 more to get out of the inning, and by the time he was one time through the Nationals’ order, Peavy had thrown 47 pitches. The quicker any team can inflate that pitch count, the more difficult it will be for the pitcher to stay on the mound deep into the game and remain effective the second and third time through the order.
The first time Peavy went through the Nats’ lineup, he didn’t allow a single run. The second and third times through, he surrendered six runs, failing to make the type of quality pitches he had made earlier in the game.
“That’s kind of the gameplan,” Werth said. “You make guys throw pitches and work, you get them to work early in the game, by the time you’re the third time around, their pitch count’s up, they’re a little more tired than they were the first couple innings. And that’s when we get ‘em. That’s a pretty good gameplan.”
It all starts with Span at the top of the lineup, a guy who through the first seven games of the season almost seems more comfortable when he’s working with two strikes than he is early in counts. Span is a battler once he gets behind in the count, spoiling pitchers’ pitches, taking close ones just off the plate and forcing pitchers to continue to work.
Span doesn’t have a hit yet this season in the nine at-bats when he’s been in a two-strike count, but he has managed to work five walks while striking out just once.
“It’s very valuable,” Werth said. “And it just goes back to what I’m saying. When a pitcher gets to two strikes, he’s got to throw a meaningful pitch to get you out. And Denard just flipping balls, fouling them off, or getting a base hit with two strikes or spitting on a nasty ball in the dirt or whatever, that’s one pitch that guy had to throw max-effort that he didn’t get anything out of. So now he’s gotta come back and he’s gotta throw another one.
“And over the course of a season, over the course of a game, you get those guys, even the top guys in the league, you get them to throw those meaningful pitches, those max-effort pitches that should be strike three, that should be outs. And they’re nothing. And you go through a whole season, a whole six months of guys doing that? It plays in our favor. It makes everybody else in our lineup better.”