Every aspect of Denard Span’s game is clicking. He is hitting .382 since the beginning of June. He has stolen 10 bases in that span and is four away from setting a career high. Regardless of how he has done at the plate, Span always has been stellar defensively. In Monday’s loss to Baltimore, he made two nifty plays, further proof that his play has reached another level at this point of the season.
Span twice saved starter Tanner Roark from hits, perhaps a run, too. With two on and only one out in the second inning, Ryan Flaherty lined a ball to center field. Span raced in, caught it and instantly fired a throw to second base to nab Chris Davis, who couldn’t get back in time. Roark clapped his hands on the mound in glee.
But Span’s best play was in the sixth. Nelson Cruz hit a sinking line drive to center. Span was playing deep, respecting Cruz’s power. However, he saw that Cruz got slightly fooled by Roark’s slider and got a good jump.
Span slid on his right knee, catching the ball inches from the ground. But instead of a slide, Span’s right knee got caught in the grass, dug in and Span tumbled over. Span has mastered the art of making difficult catches look easy, all while protecting his body and rarely diving. He couldn’t foresee flipping over after hitting the ground.
“I was anticipating actually sliding but got stuck in the turf,” he said.
The crowd applauded Span’s catch and cheered louder when Jayson Werth came over from right field to fix the divot. Span said he has no idea how or why his right knee dug into the grass instead of simply sliding over it. He said he may be a little sore but the tumble didn’t hurt his knee.
The ground “seemed a little soft out there,” he said. “Not sure if [it was because of] the [recent] concerts or whatever. It kinda scared me a little bit because I didn’t think I slid that violently. I just got stuck. It was a probably a hole that was a couple inches deep that you guys saw J-Dub fix out there.”
Once Roark completed the inning, he waited to high-five Span at the dugout steps. “Whenever a pitcher does that, just a special feeling,” Span said. The crowd behind the Nationals dugout stood and applauded Span.
“He’s just continued to play really well,” Manager Matt Williams said. “He’s playing every day; he’s hitting, getting on base, stealing bases, playing great defense as usual. He’s a really good player, and we’re happy to have him on our club, that’s for sure.”
Added Roark: “I think he could get to any ball from left-center to right-center because he’s amazing out there. Those types of plays kept us in the game.”
This season Span may have a good shot at the National League Gold Glove. He was named a finalist last season and lost to Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez. Advanced metrics don’t do Span much justice, although the Nationals’ internal defensive metrics rate Span as an elite defender.
According to FanGraphs.com, Span has a -1.0 UZR rating, fourth-best among qualified NL center fielders. Billy Hamilton leads the group with 14.5 UZR, Gomez follows with 2.5 UZR and Marcell Ozuna is next with -0.2 UZR. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Span is worth zero defensive runs saved. Juan Lagares leads all NL center fielders with 18 defensive runs saved, Hamilton is second with 12 and Ozuna ranks third with eight. Defensive metrics are imperfect, and two-thirds of a season may not be large enough of a sample size.
But according to ESPN research, Span ranks highly in making “good plays”. Entering Monday’s game, Span was deemed to have made 15 good plays, eight misplays and only one error. His good-to-bad ratio was second among qualified center fielders, trailing only Hamilton.
“We’ve been watching him do that for a couple of years now,” shortstop Ian Desmond said of Span’s plays Monday. “He’s the best out there.”