Monday, January 31, 2011

Denard Span says Target Field hurt his numbers too

Denard Span recently told the Pioneer Press’s John Shipley that he plans on rebounding offensively in 2011.

After hitting .305/.390/.422 in his first 1,087 plate appearances with the Twins, the organization decided that they had their center fielder and lead-off hitter for the foreseeable future and handed him a five-year deal worth $16.5 million dollars heading into spring training last year. Unfortunately, Span’s first season with the new financial security was nowhere close to his prior performance. In 705 plate appearances in ’10, he hit a very pedestrian .264/.331/.348 making some wonder if he can repeat that type of production again.  

What did Span feel was the source for his decline? Like many of his other teammates, he too chose to finger Target Field as a major culprit.

In acknowledging his struggles at the plate in 2010, he noted that while he wasn’t affected by the ballpark’s supposed home run-zapping power, but rather the switch from the artificial surface of the Metrodome to the natural grass infield of Target Field shaved plenty of would-be hits off of his numbers:
"It just seemed that hits (up the middle), last year at Target Field I wouldn't get those, and did at the Metrodome," Span said. "It just felt at times like the infielders were catching up to those up the middle. It seemed like the grass would slow it up just a little, and I was out bang-bang at first."
More or less, the numbers confirms Span’s perceptions. After demonstrating success at avoiding outs when putting the ball on the ground prior to 2010, fate’s pendulum swung the other way to see a large amount of those grounders finding leather.

In his first two seasons, with the assistance of the artificial surface of the Metrodome for 81 games, Span significantly outperformed the league’s average, even besting the norm by an astonishing 48 points last year. The move to the natural grass slapped Span’s totals, helping remove 64 points from the previous season to finish well-below the league’s average in 2010:

BABIP on Grounders
League Average

To be sure, Span wasn’t the only prevalent Twins hitter to experience this phenomenon. In 2009, Joe Mauer took home the AL batting crown with a .365 batting average thanks in part to a .288 batting average on groundballs. This past season, Mauer lost 38 points on his groundball BABIP (.250) and witnessed his overall average drop to .327.

Of course, it’s hard to completely fault his new home as the source for all of his woes. While Span expresses that the new stadium snagged hits away from him, he still hit a fairly robust .302 at Target Field, just ten points lower than his average at the Dome from 2008 to 2009. Whereas a few more groundballs may have been converted to outs because of the grass infield, as a big line drive hitter to center, Target Field’s ample area up the middle likely provided Span with a few more hits that would have been tracked down at the Dome compensating him for the losses on the ground.

Likewise, the 64 point drop in his groundball BABIP isn’t all due to playing on grass an additional 81 games a year. There is probably a fair share of bad luck mixed in as more of his balls in play were simply directed at gloves rather than openings in the defense. The reality is that the transition away from the Astroturf may repress his numbers to some extent, it is unlikely that it will be as influential of a factor in 2011 as his groundball BABIP reverts back to the league and his career norm.