Denard Span can't take the heat

Greg Fiume

The Nationals have a center fielder who is facing more hard stuff than anyone in the game so far this year, and the results aren't pretty.

With the amount of money that is poured into pro scouting, video, and statistical analysis by MLB franchises, it's fair to say we've reached a point where there is a "book" on just about every hitter in the league.

Opposing pitchers and catchers know where batters' hot and cold zones are, what pitches they have trouble with, and what pitch sequences have gotten them out consistently in the past. They use this information to put together a game plan.

Or at least they can.

Sometimes the information isn't helpful. If you know a batter is absolutely useless against a nasty 12-6 hook, that doesn't really do much for you as a pitcher unless you throw one of those. If you know that a hitter struggles to catch up to a hard fastball, that is of no assistance if you are Mark Buehrle.

Additionally, sometimes in-game conditions can dictate what pitches are used. A pitcher might want to avoid breaking balls in the dirt with the winning run sitting at third base. Particularly hot, cold, or windy weather can make it difficult to make particular pitches cooperate.

Even if the conditions are right and the pitcher has the arsenal to shut down a hitter, the execution may be off or perhaps the hitter will simply overcome the odds. It is surprisingly rare in baseball for a pitcher to come in with a very specific game plan and execute it to the letter with favorable results.

That being said, sometimes when looking at the numbers, some game plans do become clear. For example, a guy like Marco Scutaro consistently sees a ton of balls in the strike zone because pitchers know that he is too disciplined to chase balls, and he is unlikely to hurt them with extra-base power if they put it in the zone.

Conversely, a player like Josh Hamilton sees relatively few pitches in the strike zone because he is both likely to chase bad pitches and likely to put pitches right down the pipe over the wall.

One such game plan that has become abundantly clear so far in 2014 is the way pitchers are going after Washington Nationals center fielder Denard Span. Specifically, they are throwing him fastballs, almost exclusively. The following chart shows the top five players in fastballs seen as a percentage, according to FanGraphs:

Player Fastball Percentage
Denard Span 80.9%
Eric Young 71.8%
Ben Revere 69.4%
Dustin Pedroia 69.1%
Derek Jeter

69.1%

Seeing a lot of fastballs is nothing new for Span, who ranked second in percentage of fastballs seen in 2013 with 66.5%, but the bump up to a total over 80% and his lead over the others here is pretty significant. In fact, since FanGraphs started tracking Pitch Type data in 2002, the highest single-season total for fastball percentage seen is 74.4%.

The season is still young, and Span might not end up blowing away any records, but it is clear that pitchers believe they can get him out with a heavy diet of heaters.

So far it's worked.

The 30-year-old is currently sitting on a .222/.282/.286 line and a 61 wRC+. That performance is definitely deflated by a .250 BABIP but remains troubling nonetheless.

The real question is why this is happening. Although hitters lose bat speed over time, Span is far too young to be falling off a cliff in that regard.

As it turns out, it's his approach that is problematic. In recent seasons Span has become more aggressive with fastballs, which has resulted in a decline in overall effectiveness. The chart below shows how often Span has chased what Brooks Baseball defines as "Hard" pitches outside the zone and what his overall results against them have been in the last three years:

Year O-Zone Swing% Batting Average ISO BABIP
2012 20.0% .307 .122 .328
2013 27.7% .284 .089 .310
2014 38.8% .219 .078 .250

While it would be easy to see this as largely a BABIP issue, we know that BABIP is affected by whether a ball is in or out of the strike zone. It is harder to get good enough contact when you are chasing balls to get them to fall for hits.

Span is being pitched in a way that most hitters could only dream of, but because he is chasing bad fastballs, he's been unable to capitalize. Span is never going to be a guy who mashes hard stuff, because he's not a guy who mashes anything. However, if he can get back to his old approach, he's likely to have a lot more success with the heat.

Then perhaps he won't see so much of it.

...

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.

Nick Ashbourne is an editor at Beyond The Box Score.

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