Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Despite fewer innings, Denard Span gets glove love

John Dewan and company at Baseball Info Solutions announced their winners for the 2011 Fielding Bible awards. And just like the Gold Gloves, the Twins were once again shut out. However some members of the team actually received a scattering of votes including Denard Span, Ben Revere, Joe Mauer, Drew Butera and Nick Blackburn.

To me, the most surprising to see was Span.

A year ago, Span was completely left off of the list. At that time, I was somewhat flabbergasted by the development. While Span did not look entirely comfortable out in center field for the first time, he still managed to put up respectable fielding numbers (including by Dewan’s own accounting system, the Plus/Minus). Frankly, I felt as if he were a top ten defender despite all of the miscues.

One of the reasons Span had difficulties in the field in 2010 was his new environs. A Twins insider told me during last offseason that Span struggled at Target Field as the alleged wind current that helps push fly balls back onto the field in the right-center gap also affected plenty of other fly balls on the field. This was difficult for Span to adjust to. Without the home/road UZR split that was once available at, there’s no way of seeing if that was indeed an influential factor.

Limited to 585 innings in the field in 2011, Span looked much improved in his fielding. Based on observation, he appeared more confident playing the in-between flies and captained the outfield much better. The metrics also support this. According to the revised zone rating, a number similar to fielding percentage which calculates the number of plays a center fielder should make in a designated zone, Span had his jump from .935 in ’10 to a MLB-best .969 in ’11. He committed just one error this past season versus four in 2010. In the end, his flawed yet often telling UZR/150 stat shot up from 4.5 last year to 17.6 this season.  

There’s no question he was a better defender yet it is interesting how he went from zero consideration in 2010 – no votes at all among the 10-judge panel – to getting top five nods, including a number three choice from Bill James and one overall mark from the honorable Peter Gammons. To summarize, the voters a year ago thought 22 other center fielders were more worthy of Fielding Bible votes over him but this year he’s shot up to number one in Gammons’ book.

While I don’t begin to understand why exactly it is that Span went from an afterthought to a frontrunner, I can speculate that the ones who did vote highly on Span likely did so based on the aforementioned series of stats – the Revised Zone Rating (RZR) and UZR/150. Fangraphs leaderboard has Denard Span leading all candidates with a minimum of 500 innings in the RZR category and a somewhat distant third in the UZR/150:

Center Fielders by UZR/150 (min 500 innings)
Carlos Gomez
Franklin Gutierrez
Denard Span
Andres Torres
Jacoby Ellsbury
Ben Revere
Nyjer Morgan


Frankly, Span looked good enough in 2010 to earn some top ten or top five votes. In limited time in the field, he certainly displayed that type of play as well this year.

While the outcome of his concussion is still a huge unknown – you can look no further than teammate Justin Morneau to see how volatile it is – Span was able to come back at the end of the season and log some playing time. That may be a positive sign for 2012. If he is able to return to playing condition and perform this well on the field in addition to providing pre-concussion offensive numbers (.300/.367/.392 in 251 plate appearances), the Twins will have a very formidable up-the-middle defender and top-of-the-lineup hitter

For more on the Twins’ 2012 lineup and outlook, check out our TwinsCentric Offseason GMHandbook.


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