A deeper look into Span’s effect on Nats’ 2013 results

This is the point in the offseason when hard news is sometimes tough to come by.

While there are still a handful of quality free agents out there on the market (Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales, Stephen Drew, Masahiro Tanaka, Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, A.J. Burnett, Grant Balfour, etc.) and there are some big contracts that have yet to be handed out, many teams have already made their most significant moves of the offseason and don’t have all that much left to do.

The Nationals certainly fit into that category.

They might still be looking for a veteran backup catcher, and if John Buck can come at a decent price, I still think he could be a good fit. They could be searching for a veteran corner infielder, and Jeff Baker, a versatile right-handed bat with some pop, is still unsigned.

All appears fairly quiet with the Nationals for the time being, however. What’s that leave a Nationals beat writer to do in his spare time? Look up interesting stats and nuggets from this past season, of course.

Yesterday, I was bumming around on Baseball-Reference.com, which is a tremendous resource if you’re ever in need of stats on specific players or teams, and I ended up on Denard Span’s splits page from the 2013 season.

A few things quickly jumped out at me, other than the difference in his splits against left-handed pitchers and right-handed pitchers, which has been written about before.

First, Span’s splits were dramatically different in Nationals wins compared to their losses. In the Nats’ 83 victories Span was a part of, he posted a strong slash line of .309/.357/.458 with three homers and 40 RBIs in 374 plate appearances. In the Nats’ 70 losses Span was a part of, his slash line was significantly uglier; he hit .240/.288/.281 with one homer and seven RBIs in 288 plate appearances.

That’s a .814 OPS in victories and a .569 OPS in defeats.

Total bases for Span during those 83 wins: 157. Total bases for the Nats center fielder during their 70 losses: 75.

Obviously, there’s a disparity there in terms of pure times that Span stepped into the batter’s box in the wins compared to the losses, but the difference in slash lines is striking. When Span was on his game (especially late in the year, when he had that 29-game hitting streak), finding a way to reach base and set the table, the Nats were a far better team.

During Span’s hitting streak (which actually covered 31 Nationals games because of one day Span got to rest and one day he entered only as a defensive replacement), the Nats averaged 5.32 runs per game. During their other 131 games they played in 2013, the Nats averaged 3.74 runs per game.

There are other factors that come into play there, of course. But the Nats’ success during this stretch shouldn’t surprise anyone; when a leadoff hitter is performing well, it takes pressure off the guys in the middle of the order and obviously creates more scoring opportunities.

Take a look at how Span performed month-by-month last season, keeping an eye both on the slash lines and the run production:

April: .276/.349/.316, 0 HRs, 9 RBIs, 9 runs, 31 total bases
May: .275/.313/.422, 0 HRs, 6 RBIs, 14 runs, 46 total bases
June: .235/.279/.337, 0 HRs, 5 RBIs, 10 runs, 33 total bases
July: .289/.349/.402, 2 HRs, 10 RBIs, 13 runs, 39 total bases
August: .294/.336/.394, 1 HR, 8 RBIs, 10 runs, 43 total bases
September: .303/.333/.404 1 HR, 9 RBIs, 19 runs, 40 total bases

When did the Nats start playing more like a complete team and stringing together wins? Yup, in the season’s final three months, when Span was clicking.

Bottom line: If Span can carry how he performed over the final three months of the season into 2014, the Nats will be far better off. It’s fair to criticize him for a slow start, but he should also be credited for pulling himself out of that deep slump in the middle of the season and turning his campaign around.

It will now be on him to continue that success this upcoming season. The Nats need more of the July-September Span in 2014.

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