Denard Span has often talked about how this year has felt like his rookie season all over again. He had to learn a new set of pitchers. He had to adjust to new surroundings. And, more than anything, he had to face a heavy dose of fastballs at the plate. Pitchers attack newbie hitters with fastballs, the most fundamental pitch in baseball, particularly inside, to see how they respond. Once a hitter proves he can hit a fastball, pitchers adjust and challenge him in other ways.
Span is in that situation in his sixth major league season. Only two qualified hitters have seen more fastballs than him this season. Marco Scutaro of the San Francisco Giants sees a fastball 68.1 percent of the time he is up to bat, followed by Eric Young of the New York Mets with a 67.4 percent clip. Span is third with a fastball rate of 66.8 percent.
Once Span proved he could hit a fastball as a newbie, particularly inside, in the American League with the Twins, pitchers challenged him in other ways. In his rookie season, he saw 64.4 percent fastballs. His second season he saw a career-high 68.2 percent fastballs. His third season it was still high: 67.4 percent. It slowly trended down to a career-low 64.7 percent last season, his final one with the Twins. He saw more curveballs (11 percent), change-ups (8.3 percent) and cutters (6.4 percent).
Span has admittedly struggled with his swing and timing this season. And as a result, he has also struggled hitting the heavy dose of fastballs pumped at him. The Nationals are among the worst fastball-hitting teams in the majors, and Span is near the bottom of the squad. According to Fangraphs.com, which assigns values to how a player hits certain pitchers compared to the league average, Span is tied for second to last on the team at hitting the fastball (the wFB stat). He has a generated 8.1 runs less than average off the fastball, tied with demoted Danny Espinosa, and better than only Kurt Suzuki’s -12.8 value. (But relative to their number of at-bats, Chad Tracy and Espinosa are actually at the bottom.)
Also among the players who see the most fastballs in the majors, rookie Anthony Rendon sits near the top. If he qualified, his rate of 63.9 percent fastballs would rank seventh in the majors. He is handling fastballs just below average (negative 0.7), but that’s almost negligible.
Rendon began his second stint in the majors on a hot streak, hitting .312 with four home runs and 13 RBI over 35 games. Then, opposing pitchers adjusted to him. They challenged him more inside with fastballs and attacked apparent weaknesses. Rendon fell into a mini-slump, hitting .157 over the following 18 games through most of July. Now, Rendon is trending back up, hitting .333 (7 for 21) with two homers over the past seven games.
Rendon has traditionally been one of the best hitters at every level he has played, from high school to college to the minors. Now, he has had to adjust to how pitchers are attacking him and rely on scouting reports and video more extensive than he ever used in college.
“I just think it’s pretty funny how that can change within a game,” Rendon said over the weekend. “Just from your first at-bat to see how you are to come back and attack you a different way in your second at-bat just to see how you were standing in the box. They pay attention to every detail. They try to use everything they can.”
>>> Jayson Werth sees 61.7 percent fastballs — which would rank as 17th most in the majors if he qualified — and is hammering them. He has generated a team-high 20.1 more runs than the average hitter when hitting the fastball.
>>> Ryan Zimmerman sees 61.4 percent fastballs, 18th most in the majors, and has done well, too, generating 9.1 more runs than average off them. With fewer at-bats, Wilson Ramos has also hit the fastball well (four more runs than average).
>>> Bryce Harper also hammers fastballs — 7.6 more runs than average — but he rarely sees them. If he qualified, his rate of 49.9 percent fastballs would rank as the seventh lowest in baseball. Instead, pitchers are challenging him with a lot of offspeed and breaking pitches. He sees 17.4 percent sliders and struggles against them (-4.1 runs). He has also seen a lot of cutters, which he hits well, and a fair share of curveballs and change-ups, also pitches he handles well.