Going Deep: Denard Span is having a career year

Andy Patton takes a look at how the shift has affected Denard Span, who is quietly having an excellent season.

(Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)

Veteran position players in their mid-30’s, particularly outfielders, are the least sexy fantasy picks out there. Corner outfielders who put up 15-20 home runs with a .280 ish average and a handful of steals are boring, but necessary roster fillers in most fantasy formats. Once they get up into their 30’s however, they lose value. Their ceiling has already been established, and they are far more likely to begin their decline than they are to somehow exceed the output they have steadily posted for the last 5-8 seasons.

However, once in a blue moon these veterans, for one reason or another, find a way to post career seasons in what are expected to be their twilight years. We’ve already touched on one outfielder who fits this bill in Braves right fielder Nick Markakis. However, there’s another, even less heralded outfielder who is having a career season at age 34. That would be new Tampa Bay outfielder/DH Denard Span.

An initial look at Span’s line is not all that impressive: .235/.356/.382 with four home runs, five stolen bases and a 110 wRC+. You may be thinking, Span posted 12/12 last year with  a .272 average and a 102 wRC+, so what’s the big deal?

Well, for starters, he is walking way more than ever before. His walk rate stands at a stellar 15.3%, a career high and nearly double his 8.7% career average. As such his .356 OBP is his highest mark since 2009, when he posted a .392 line with the Twins. He’s also sporting career highs in hard-hit rate (35.1%) exit velocity (87.5 mph) and launch angle (15.5 degrees). While xStats aren’t exactly a predictive measure, they do show what Span’s performance should look like based on how he has been hitting the ball. His xSlash line is a blistering .277/.391/.394, considerably higher than his actual slash line. While Span’s peripherals this season have been excellent, his .235 batting average is the lowest mark of his career.

So Span has hit the ball harder than ever and with a higher launch angle, yet his BABIP is over 50 points lower than his career average. The first guess as to why that is would be his speed. Always known as a stolen base threat, has Span slowed down as he’s reached his mid-30’s? A look at Baseball Savant shows that Span is actually boasting the highest record sprint speed of his career, at 28.1 feet per second. So if it’s not his speed, what is causing Span to hit the ball harder than ever before, yet struggle to actually get hits?

A ha. So even though Span’s pull rate of 36% and his ground ball rate of 37.7% are both below his career averages, the left-handed hitter has seen teams employ the shift on him. The jump is pretty steep, as he’s nearly seen more shifts this season than he has in his entire (recorded) career, in just 162 plate appearances. There are likely a variety of reasons why that is, including his spot atop the order, his new team, and a more analytical environment in baseball overall. Still, going from seeing the shift 2.6% of the time to 16% of the time is dramatic, and is very obviously impacting his BABIP and overall batting average. Right? Well yes, but maybe not how you would expect:

So now we have to recap: Span has the highest exit velocity, hard hit rate, walk rate, sprint speed and launch angle of his career to date. He also has the lowest batting average and lowest BABIP. He is in a platoon situation where he primarily faces right-handed pitching, and opposing teams are shifting on him nearly 8 times as often as they ever have before. Yet, somehow, Span is actually posting better numbers against the shift and against left-handed pitchers than he is against right-handed pitching, and against traditional defense. This is weird.

I’m not going to pretend I have a magic answer for you. Span’s numbers against left-handed pitching are certainly going to normalize, although he faces them so infrequently that will hardly impact his season line. His xslash against right-handed pitching is .260/.370/.390, compared to his actual .216/.333/.360 line, so perhaps some positive regression is coming his way against righties.

As for the shift, it’s hard to say. Teams may see this data and decide against employing the shift against a hitter who has clearly not been bothered by the increased prevalence this season. However, Span’s .224/.221/.299 slash against a traditional defense is due for some positive regression as well.

Span’s peripherals and high walk rate are enough for me to consider him in 12-team OBP leagues, particularly those that allow daily roster moves. If you can snap him up and plug him in on days that he is starting, he should return solid value. 34-year-old players don’t often change dramatically, but a new environment has seen some positive changes overtake Span this season. He may be boring, but for those in need of a solid OBP machine, Span is your guy.

Andy Patton

Andy is the Dynasty Content Manager here at PitcherList. He manages all of the prospect content on the site, while also contributing a weekly article on dynasty deep sleepers, and the weekly hitter and pitcher stash lists. Andy also co-hosts the Never Sunny in Seattle podcast on the PitcherList Podcast Network, and separately hosts the Score Zags Score Podcast.

2 responses to “Going Deep: Denard Span is having a career year”

  1. Taylor says:

    Great write-up!

  2. Maris says:

    Andy. I drafted Scott Kingery at a decent price in our points keeper league. I really don’t need him this year and can stash him. But then could also use another pitcher to help my 2nd place team. Would you drop Scott or hold on for next year?

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