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Washington Nationals: Sabermetrics Not Fans Of CF Denard Span’s Defense

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Washington Nationals center-fielder Denard Span, to some, is considered one of the better defensive outfielders in the majors today.

His ability to seemingly get to every fly ball has launched its own hashtag: #Spanning. Nationals analyst F.P. Santangelo has said constantly to “give that man [Span] a Gold Glove.” As much as he is visibly pleasing to watch in the outfield, sabermetrics and more detailed statistics indicate that Span is a below-average center-fielder and all of this hype is unwarranted.

According to Merriam-Webster, sabermetrics is “the statistical analysis of baseball data.” The entire sabermetrics community has gained momentum over the past few seasons and the deeper statistics have been taken more seriously throughout baseball circles. FanGraphs, the cream of the crop on the internet regarding sabermetrics, says that Span hasn’t had a good season based on a couple of key statistics.

UZR stands for Ultimate Zone Rating and it combines almost every aspect of defense, including range, errors committed, and arm strength. Span’s rating is a -4.8, which is sixth out of eight eligible center-fielders in the National League. In other words, statistics say that Span has relinquished nearly five runs because of poor defensive play. His range rating, which is part of UZR, says that his “lack” of range is responsible for -4.6 runs.

Just don’t tell that to the thousands who saw this last night.

Span certainly passes the eye test in terms of being a solid defensive center-fielder, but one has to wonder how much better he would be if he didn’t have Bryce Harper next to him? Harper, who is an outstanding athlete, has caused communication problems in the outfield on more than a few occasions, leading to either collisions, the ball dropping, or Harper cutting Span off, only to misplay the ball.

Nonetheless, Span has made his fair share of spectacular catches this year and routinely makes difficult catches look effortless.

Baseball analysts and fans have to take these numbers with a grain of salt. If fans only relied on these numbers, they’d be saying Robinson Cano and Mike Trout are also below-average playing the field. The good news is that the voters have paid more attention to defense and defense only over the past two decades. In the past, Gold Glove winners also had spectacular offensive seasons, but didn’t play good defense (or play defense at all).

In 1999, Rafael Palmeiro only played 28 games at first base, but won the AL Gold Glove at first. He led all AL first baseman in batting average, home runs, and RBI that year.

The numbers say that the Mets’ Juan Lagares should win the hardware this year for NL center-fielders, but to say that Span is a below-average defender is absurd. Besides making catches like the one seen above, Span has played in high-leverage situations and didn’t fold under pressure. Span puts his body on the line night in and night out, leaving Tuesday’s game with a minor right knee injury.

He was taken out for precautionary reasons, but if it were up to Span, it’s likely he would have stayed in the game. That’s the type of center-fielder Span is and it’s too bad that sabermetrics don’t verify that.

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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at robert.cobb@theinscribermag.com

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