Wednesday, March 10, 2010
How Denard Span became Denard Span
How did Denard Span become one of the game's best leadoff men? As Kelsie Smith writes, everyone's got a theory ...
Denard Span traces his evolution as a leadoff hitter to the laser eye surgery he had in 2007. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire thinks it was Span's I'll-show-you determination. Venerable sabermetrician Bill James thinks, perhaps, it was natural maturation, a more hitter-friendly home ballpark than Span had for much of his minor-league career and a natural shift in Span's game.
Still, it's the on-base improvement that even Span didn't expect.
"It did (surprise me) a great deal," he said. "I think it was a combination of a lot of things. Six years in the minor leagues, a lot of at-bats in the minor leagues, I had Lasik eye surgery, and nothing against the minor league umpires, but a little bit better umpiring, better lights (in the majors)."
The biggest noticeable difference of all those factors, Span said, was the corrective surgery he had on his right eye after the 2007 season. Before the procedure, Span wasn't doing anything to remedy his weaker right eye. He tried to wear contacts but found them uncomfortable. Immediately after the surgery, he said, he noticed he wasn't chasing pitches the way he'd always done before. His results at the plate jibe with that conclusion.
I've got a great deal of respect for both Ron Gardenhire and Bill James, but if Denard Span says it was the surgery -- rather than determination or maturation -- that made him a fine major league hitter, I'm going with that.
That said, it's really not Span's on-base percentage that's improved since his time in the minors; it's his power. In the minors, Span batted .287 with a .357 on-base percentage. That 80-point spread between Span's batting and on-base averages suggests a player with a solid knowledge of the strike zone. Granted, we wouldn't expect a player with a .357 OBP in the minors to have a .390 OBP in the majors (after 238 games). But it's not shocking.
What's surprising is the slugging percentage. In the minors, Span's isolated power -- slugging percentage minus batting average -- was .071; in the majors it's been .117. When Span was in the minors, I didn't consider him a good prospect because I thought he wasn't strong enough, that the pitchers in the majors would knock the bat out of his hands.
It should be said that scouts always liked Span. He was a first-round pick (20th overall) in 2002, and even when he was kicking around in the low minors with slugging percentages in the low .300s, the scouts still liked him. The Twins kept moving him up the ladder, and he did usually hold his own.
But look at 2007. Advanced to Triple-A after a credible Double-A season (at 22), Span batted .267/.323/.355. He was only 23 that season, but our friends at Baseball Prospectus concluded, "There is not much reason to believe he can be more than an extra outfielder."
Then, LASIK. And suddenly Span's tearing up the International League and the Twins have to call him up and he tears up the American League and since then hasn't really stopped.
But are things really so simple?
Going back to 2007, Span was terrible (or had terrible numbers, anyway) in the spring. His line for April and May: .214/.272/.279.
The rest of the season, though? .303/.355/.403
Of course, even those numbers wouldn't have led anyone to predict that Span would break out in 2008, first back in Triple-A and then with the big club. But if Span went from suspect to prospect, it didn't happen after he got his eyes fixed; it happened the summer before -- perhaps in August when he batted .330 and drew 16 walks.
I write a lot of things down. Things I read, things I hear in movies, things people tell me. Some years ago, I wrote down this thing John Henry said: "Life is too dynamic to remain static."
I don't believe that we'll ever know precisely how Denard Span went from fourth outfielder to premier American League leadoff man. Maybe he was just too dynamic to remain static.