On Friday, I documented Denard Span’s obnoxiously large groundball rate that has skewed from his typical career marks. After hitting under 54% of his batted balls as grounders in his first two seasons at the major league level, Span has seen this rate jump up to over 60%. What’s more is that the increase in worm-burners has come at the expense of his line drives - that figured has dropped from 26% in ’08 to a league-average 19% rate in ’09 to a new low of 15.1%. The consequence of the displacement of liners is a .242 batting average heading into Monday’s game, thanks to a heavily depressed BABIP of .267.
This is a curious trend as the majority of Span’s peripheral numbers have remained intact. He is not chasing more pitches out of the zone or making less contact in general. In fact, his zone discipline may be the best since his arrival with the Twins as he has coaxed a walk in 15.6% of his plate appearances by chasing just 16.3% of pitches out of the strike zone. Similarly, pitchers are throwing him the same mix of pitches that he has faced in the previous two seasons with a healthy emphasis on fastballs, so it is not as if he is getting an influx of breaking balls.
Because of this radical decline in his liners and inflation in the grounders, I went back to the MLB.com video archives to see if there is anything different about his swing. Admittedly, Span’s effortless mechanics and lightning quick wrists leave little to be diagnosed. Whereas Delmon Young and JJ Hardy were virtual trainwrecks and had shortcomings that were easy to spot, Span has very minimal amount of moving parts. His entire mechanics are a simple shift of his hips before breaking his hands at the ball.
After staring at several dozen clips of his swings from the past three years, one thing began to jump out that differed this year from 2008-2009 that might explain why Span is having difficulty elevating the ball: Hand positioning. In his first two years, Span kept his hands away from his body, slightly extended and out over the plate. His bottom hand was basically at the same height as his lead shoulder. This season he has brought his hands in closer to his body, tucking his elbow in more and moving his front forearm closer to his chest – a slight yet noticeable variation. Though this may seem like a particularly minor flaw, it can still effect a player’s swing immensely. In Span’s case, it appears to be inciting more bouncers as he is hitting the top part of the baseball because of a downward motion caused by the new hand placement.
To highlight this, below are two images both from Kaufman Stadium in Kansas City (one from ’09 and one from this season) to ensure that the camera angles are as similar as possible. While these are two isolated clips, I can say that this was a trend repeated over and over in the last two seasons. The first picture is from last season (2009):
Above we find that Span's lead arm angle is near 90 degrees. The following image from 2010 shows a slight change in his arm bend:
Here's a look at his wrist action as he begins to offer at the pitch:
It should be reiterated that he has a solid foundation. His plate discipline, wrist action and ability to make contact along with his speed will ensure that he will put up respectable numbers even if he hits a higher than normal amount of grounders. Post-April, Span has gone 7-for-14 with two extra base hits and a 38.5% line drive rate in those past three games. This could be the signs of him either adjusting (moving his hands again) or acclimating to his new approach (knowing which pitch he can drive). As the summer progresses, keep an eye on this stance as well as his ground ball rate.
The clip on the left (from 2009) demonstrates how he was able to keep his swing level and drive at the middle part of the ball with this hand location. It is just a simple turn of his hands and he maintains a very consistent plane, one almost parallel to the ground with his right arm extension. In the clip on the right (2010), Span's has a fraction of a fraction of an second longer to go to the point of contact since his hands are closer to his body. Even though he has very quick hands, this new placement could potentially be the cause of the added ground balls as he appears to be hitting the top-half of the baseball more often as his front arm drives downward instead of extending across.
The interesting aspect here is if this alteration was encouraged by the coaching staff, like hitting coach Joe Vavra and Michael Cuddyer worked on, or if Span himself felt more comfortable with this positioning. In Cuddyer's case, the Twins felt that he could generate more power if he dropped his hands down. So far, that approach has paid dividends for the right fielder (4 HR, .178 ISOP) who has been a historically slow starter. Span, on the other hand, did seem to need much in the way of tinkering. After all, he has hit .305/.390/.422 for his career coming into this season.