Heading into the 2012 season, the Twins had plenty of question marks throughout the lineup. Among those unanswered questions was center fielder Denard Span.
The concern was Span, like Justin Morneau to a less extent, would be unable to play consistently throughout the season at a high level. After all, Span’s concussion in the middle of the 2011 season sidelined him for an extended period of time and, when he returned for 14 games in August and September, he provided minimal production, going 7-for-53 (.132) with 10 strikeouts to three walks.
Nevertheless, the Twins’ leadoff hitter has had a fast start to the season, setting the tables like never before. In addition to an impressive batting average (.333) and a decent amount of extra base hits (7), he’s reaching base at a very good .373 clip which gives the heart of the order someone to attempt to drive home.
What makes Span such a valuable asset at the top of the Twins’ order is his outstanding plate discipline. For starters, he rarely expands the strike zone, instead shows off an amazing amount of restraint. According to Fangraphs.com’s Plate Discipline statistics, Span has chased after just 19.6% of all out-of-zone pitches which is well below the 28.9% league average.
By not offering at out-of-zone pitches, Span is confident that he is putting mostly in-zone pitches into play. These types of choice pitches are often within a hitter’s swing zone and result in more square contact. Because of this, it is not surprising to see that Span has maintained his second highest line drive output (23%) since his first season with the Twins. What’s more is that his 10% fly ball rate is the lowest in baseball at this juncture and he has yet to hit an infield fly ball. These are all signs of a hitter who is seeing the ball extremely well and putting the ball into play extremely well.
Part of what is driving his success this year is his ability to go the other way rather than pulling the ball. There’s no question that he is a rare offensive specimen is his quick wrists and patience. He can wait until the pitch is almost in the catcher’s mitt only to flick his wrists and send a screaming line drive somewhere on the left side of the field. However, when Span becomes too pull happy, he winds up turning over those quick wrists and grounding out (he has a 73% ground ball rate when pulling the ball) a trait we saw far too often in his 2010 campaign.
However, there are signs that Span, now a veteran with four major league seasons under his belt, is adapting and making changes to his approach for the better.
Compare his 2011 approach to the two clips below from 2012. In 2011, although he is going to opposite field with the pitch, he is doing so more with his upper body rather than with his legs and hips:
Meanwhile, in 2012, watch his back leg as he draws it back towards the first base side, directing his hips towards the left side of the field:
Pitchers have stared the 2012 season by peppering the outer half of the zone to Span. To his credit, he has succeeded by giving what they pitch him and driving the ball towards left. This is why 39% of the balls he puts into play wind up headed towards the opposite field, well above his career rate of 28%.
Soon enough, however, teams will likely adjust their approach to Span and attempt to bust him inside more often in attempts to keep him from focusing on going away with every pitch. The Royals, while their pitching staff is struggling worse than the Twins, have moved towards using video scouting more often than in-person scouting. If the Royals advanced video scouts have picked up on this, they may implement a game plan this weekend that will result in Span being pitched inside more frequently.
Watch for Span to continue to go away with pitches out over the plate but keep in mind Kansas City will likely attempt to shut him down by busting him inside.