If you look at Denard Span’s overall numbers for the 2013 season, you probably wouldn’t have any indication of just how long the Nationals center fielder struggled offensively this year.
Span’s career slash line is .283/.351/.387. This season, he hit .279/.327/.380. Not his best work, but not a line that jumps out at you as all that subpar.
Yet, for more than four months, Span was stuck in neutral from an offensive perspective. He didn’t feel comfortable with his swing. He wasn’t getting on base. And he wasn’t hitting the ball with much authority.
After going 0-for-5 in a loss to the Braves on Aug. 16, Span was hitting just .258 and had a lowly on-base percentage of .310.
“For whatever reason, I just didn’t start off as good as I wanted to,” Span said prior to the Nationals’ series finale in Arizona.
Then came the 29-game hitting streak from Aug. 17-Sept. 18 in which Span caught fire. He hit .371/.406/.492 during that stretch, with nine extra-base hits and seven stolen bases in eight attempts. The Nats went 22-8 over the course of Span’s streak (including one game where he came in as a defensive replacement and didn’t get a plate appearance), and finally, Span started feeling like himself again.
“Me, personally, I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Span said. “The last month or so, it definitely made my season. It made the whole season, I’m gonna be honest with you, for myself and my teammates. I feel like we all got going. I’m not saying (that was) because of how I played, but I feel like I was a part of that. I can go home and have my head up. I held my own.
“I would’ve been tough for me to go home on a bad note, just to go home for five, six months and think about (everything). After every season, whether I do good or bad, I always go home and the first week or so, I evaluate how I did. ‘What were the good things I did? What were the bad things I did? How can I get better?’
“I’m gonna do that even now, even though I finished good. But it would’ve been more soul-searching or more of a gut-check if I didn’t finish off strong.”
After coming over to the Nationals in a trade with the Twins last winter, Span admits that he might’ve put a little bit of pressure on himself to perform early on, trying to impress his teammates and the fan base. It’s a similar message to what we heard from Dan Haren, another guy who joined the Nationals this season and felt like he had to prove that he belonged and could contribute to a team with such high expectations.
When Span came out of the gates slowly, the pressure that he put on himself only started to increase. He was performing at a high level defensively and still playing hard, but the offensive numbers just weren’t there.
Those struggles, combined with the way he turned it on over the last six weeks of the season, made Span proud of the way he was able to battle and eventually show the Nats and their fans what he’s capable of.
“Anytime you come to a new place, you want to make a good first impression,” Span said. “I think that’s maybe why it was tough for me not starting off as good, because you want to make that first impression, but I think as the season went on, even when I wasn’t hitting, the way I was playing the game out on the field, defensively and hustling and all that stuff, I think the fans got a chance to fall in love with that part of my game.
“And then once I started hitting, it just came full circle with the fans appreciating what I do. So it was real important for me to win the fans and win my teammates, as well.”
Span’s defensive ability isn’t reflected in the fielding metrics at times, but Fangraphs gave him a UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) of 10.2 this season, fourth-best among qualifying major league center fielders. He also led the majors in triples and stole 20 bases, rounding out a solid first season in D.C.
The season didn’t go the way the Nationals or Span would have liked overall, but the way that both he and the team performed down the stretch left a positive taste in the 29-year-old outfielder’s mouth heading into the offseason.
“I had a lot of fun,” Span said. “I learned a lot, coming over to a new organization. I like this organization. I think that the way that we finished off as a team shows what we’re gonna be capable to do next year and if I had to assess this whole season, I’d just say I had a good time with a good group of teammates and good coaches. We’re in a good place for next year.”