Former Mets general manager and current ESPN commentator Steve Phillips mentioned during the seventh inning of ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball broadcast of the Twins/Brewers game that Minnesota was swiftly becoming a complete team with one exception: a true leadoff hitter. Phillips gestured that the Twins do have Denard Span in that role but that he thinks of Span more as a "seventh hitter". This was an interesting assessment of what has been viewed locally as the best leadoff hitter the Twins have seen since the departure of Chuck Knoblauch. Piquing my curiosity, I had to figure out what would inspire Phillips, someone who has access to data and analysis, to make such a comment? Have we as Twins fans been fooling ourselves on the importance of Span at the top of the lineup?
Through Monday, Span was hitting .302/.390/.407 (above the leadoff-average of .268/.343/.407) making his current value derived from his on-base ability much higher then that of your common leadoff man. True, his walk rate of 10% is just league-average indicating that his .390 on-base percentage is slightly inflated by a sturdy .338 batting average on balls in play. Then again, Span managed to maintain similar numbers in 2008 under the same pretenses. As a quick groundball/line drive hitter, it stands to reason that Span's BABIP would be higher than league average.
His walk rate aside, Span has a patient and selective approach to the plate. He is tied for eighth in the American League in lowest swinging percentage (38%) which has led to a very good 3.94 pitches per plate appearance. He does not strike out much but when he does, he goes down looking. In fact 62 percent of his strikeouts are looking which leads the league and as such his selectivity has resulted in 16 of his 26 punchouts. As an admission there are far greater sins than to strikeout looking, even Phillips should know that. Span also has great contact ability, connecting on 93 percent of his swings. Only Toronto's leadoff man, Marco Scutaro, holds a better contact rate than Span (Scutaro is also the AL's leading walks leader).
Phillips never did reveal what about Span's approach made him balk at his candidacy as a leadoff hitter. If I had to speculate why he felt as such, my guess would center on his runs scored total. In the first month of the season, Span scored just 10 times - a byproduct of the lack of production in the order behind him. In comparison, Scutaro scored 24 times for the Blue Jays while the Rangers' Ian Kinsler scored 18 times. Span got himself on base nearly 40% of his plate appearances yet was frequently stranded. In many ways, Span's run scored numbers in April was like that of Joe Nathan without any save opportunities. It is a hard statistic to compile if your offense or the game score isn't compliant.
Does this mean that Span is an ill-suited leadoff man? Absolutely not. On base abilities, selectivity and contact. These are qualities shared by some of the game's better leadoff hitters. Getting on base that frequently, especially someone with speed like Span, usually leads to huge gains on the scoreboard - even more so when you purge your lineup of your larger out-makers in the number two spot (Casilla, Tolbert). Since moving the league's best hitter to hit second, Span has scored five times in three games. Keeping Joe Mauer batting second will ensure that Phillips never underestimates Span's skills again.