Denard Span entered this season with the goal of improving his base stealing. And for the most part, his ability to swipe bags is still a work in progress. But during his 28-game hitting streak that has helped turn his season around at the plate, Span has also improved on the base paths. He has stolen seven bases in eight attempts during the span, bringing his season total to 18 steals.
Part of the success has simply been that he has reached base at a higher rate; he has raised his on-base percentage to .332. But mostly it comes down to improved confidence and better reads on opposing pitchers.
“When you’re swinging the bat well, I think it just carried onto the bases,” he said. “Just being more confidence and seeing stuff. [First base coach] Tony [Tarasco] is helping me out and telling me when to go and what to look for.”
For his speed and strong defensive skills, Span isn’t an exceptional base stealer. “He may not have that explosive start, it’ll take him a little ways to get going,” Manager Davey Johnson said. Span’s highest season total was 26 bases (in 30 attempts) in 2010. He stole 17 bases (in 23 attempts) last season. He has hit the 20-stolen base plateau only twice in his six-year major league career. He could reach it again this season.
Johnson said Span, and the Nationals, have recently been taking advantage pitchers who can be slow to the plate. The Nationals have been judicious about when to give Span the green light to steal.
“He’s not your classic base stealer,” Johnson said. “He’s good on the bases. He’s a smart baserunner, but he’s not your — I’m kind of like [Earl] Weaver in that regard. Don’t give up guys on the bases, or get thrown out. It used to aggravate Weaver to death when a guy would be bouncing back and forth like he’s going to steal, get picked off, giving up outs. I like when the chances are in our favor.”
Span feels that the only part of the game that speeds up on him is when he is on the base paths attempting a steal. He is trying to keep tabs on the pitcher, the catcher, the fielders around him and the county. He has been too timid in those situations.
“Everything was going so fast I would second guess myself and wouldn’t trust,” he said. “Tony has been there the last week or so to tell me to slow it down. When he sees something, he just tells me, ‘Pay attention to this.’ Usually, I just pay attention to that one thing. It’s all about reading pitchers and something I need to get better at doing. Usually, when he tells me something to key on, I’ve been successful every time.”
Span has been successful is 75 percent of his attempts this season (18 for 24), better than the league average of 73 percent. As a team, the Nationals have stolen only 80 bases, below the league average of 84, but have been successful in 75 percent of their chances. Span still thinks he has room for improvement.
“I’m still a work in progress as far as being a base stealer,” he said. “I feel like that’s the one part of my game that I can get better at will make me a complete leadoff threat.”