(Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images)

Denard Span has been the most consistent and, in many ways, surprising hitter for the Washington Nationals this season.

Since the all-star break, one could make the argument he’s been the best hitter in baseball. He is batting .438 (trailing just Chicago’s Adam Eaton, though Span has played in one more game and has five more at-bats), has 35 hits (most in MLB) and a .505 on-base percentage.

On a team with a .250 team batting average (No. 19 overall), Span is hitting .304 for the season. For all the media turmoil that surrounds Bryce Harper, Span has been a rock for the Nationals and his bat has saved them. Here are two reasons why Span is helping put his team in position to reach the postseason for the second time since returning to Washington.

He’s become a better hitter

Much of his improvements are a byproduct of what appears to be a change in approach. Span, like New York Yankee Brett Gardner, is no longer piddling balls on the ground, elevating his groundball-to-flyball ratio to a respectable 45-30. For context, his prior career-low in groundball percentage was 52.8.

Span ranks eighth among all center fielders in walks with 39. His strikeout percentage is a career-low 9.6 percent and his walk-to-strikeout ratio is a career-high 0.85. As a result, he’s making contact with pitches at a higher rate. He’s connecting on a career-high 92.7 percent of his swings and 84.2 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. Though he isn’t exactly being more selective, he’s channeling his inner Vladimir Guerrero and pounding the ball outside the conventional zone. Of the eight zones on fangraphs.com just above the upper boundary of the zone, he’s connecting on 100 percent of swings in four of them. Last season, he connected on 93 percent in one.



He’s become a more complete fielder and base runner

Span is perennially an elite defender. This season, in 931.2 innings, he’s tallied just one error for a .996 fielding percentage — fourth-best among all center fielders. He hasn’t had a throwing error since 2012, but he’s already tied a career high in double plays started (three) with more than 40 games to play.

He’s been a thief on the base paths this season as well. On a team with just 64 stolen bases, Span has 24. His career high is 26. In doing so, he’s been able to put himself into position to score on a team that bats .240 with runners in scoring position (No. 24 in MLB) — not exactly elite in taking advantage of opportunities (No. 14 in MLB in RBI). He’s been caught stealing just three times.

Josh Planos has had his work featured at Rivals, Bleacher Report, Denver Post, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio, and ESPN Radio, and is currently a columnist for the ESPN TrueHoop Network, FanSided and The Pick and Roll. He loves interacting with readers via Twitter (@JPlanos).