NEW YORK — During this season’s all-star break, Denard Span went home and tortured himself. Every winter, Span visualizes himself at the All-Star Game. He sees himself standing on a base line and doffing his cap beside baseball’s best players. He dreams about watching the home run derby from the sideline. He had never brought himself to view the game from home. This July, Span watched every pitch.
“Mainly, it was resentment,” Span said. “I was upset I didn’t make it, as hard as I worked to try to be there. This year, I just was like, you know what? I wanted to torture myself. I sat there and watched it. I saw how much fun everybody was having. It made me want to be there even more.”
Span remains unsure why he chose this season to subject himself to the game. It had something to do with the faith he has in himself. He believed he ranked among the best, even in a season that tested him. In April, he felt the need to express to his manager he belonged in the Washington Nationals’ lineup. At midseason, he heard he should be the odd man out when Bryce Harper returned. Right now, he may be the Nationals’ best player.
For more than a month, Span has played at a level commensurate with any of the stars he watched the night over the break. Starting June 28 — two days before Harper returned and implied he wanted to play center field — Span reached base in 36 consecutive games. Since July 1, only three major league players have accounted for more wins above replacement, per FanGraphs.com.
“I believe that Denard has earned and played for the right to be where he’s at,” Manager Matt Williams said. “I’m proud of the way he’s played. I’m sure he’s heard and read and people have talked to him about any potential move that would be made. I think he’s handled it really well, like a pro. And he’s played exceptionally well.”
Before Span’s streak, he felt compelled to speak to Williams about his role multiple times. In April, Span was out of the Nationals’ lineup twice in the season’s first nine games. He met with his new manager in his office.
“I made it very clear I felt like I knew I was the center fielder of this team,” Span said. “Just how adamant how I was. I didn’t go in there and straighten him out. It was one of those things where I look back at it, and I felt like it was a test. It was my opportunity to let him know, communicate to him, that I feel like I’m the one that needs to be out there every day and how important it is for me to be out in center field every day.”
Williams assured Span he would play on an everyday basis, and as Span’s on-base percentage dipped, Williams remained staunch in batting him leadoff. In late June, during a series in Chicago as Harper neared his returned, Williams met with Span again. Williams laid out scenarios in which he could move Span, whose on-base percentage then sat at .308, down in the lineup.
Span was not upset, and he respected Williams for communicating with him. But he also told Williams he preferred to lead off.
“If he had made the decision to take me from leadoff, I would have went with it,” Span said. “I wouldn’t have been upset with him. At that time, I wasn’t getting on base at a good clip. It was one of those things, I needed to look myself in the mirror and say, ‘I need to step my game up.’ When he stuck with me, it kind of gave me the extra confidence.”
Span never gave Williams a chance to move him down. That day, he started his streak, which lasted until Tuesday night. In the 36 consecutive games Span reached safely, he hit .396 with a .463 on-base percentage and a .458 slugging percentage with 19 walks and 16 strikeouts in 164 plate appearances. Along with his outstanding defense, Span stole 10 bases and got caught once. During his streak, Span raised his average from .264 to .306 — seventh in the National League at the highest peak — and pushed his on-base percentage from .308 to .360.
Span hit .442 on balls in play, a figure that suggests good luck has played a role. But his success extends beyond his recent stretch. On July 22 last year, the Nationals fired hitting coach Rick Eckstein and replaced him with Rick Schu. Span clicked instantly with Schu’s relaxed style and emphasis on simplicity.
Schu helped Span make a subtle change that spurred his streak. Early in the season, Span stood crouched at the plate, with spring-loaded legs that allowed for more power. In late June, Span stood taller, which allowed him to see the ball. Before the streak began, Span swatted one extra-base hit for every 10.5 plate appearances. During his streak, Span hit seven doubles and one triple in 164 plate appearances — one extra-base per 20.5 plate appearances. But the sacrifice in power allowed him to spark the Nationals’ lineup.
“I’m still swinging aggressively,” Span said. “It’s more controlled. It’s more a shorter swing, more line-drive, hard-groundball type swing. More up the middle. That’s one of the reasons.”
Span’s surge has also given the Nationals an easy decision this winter. The team holds a $9 million option for the 2015 season. Entering this year, based on his defensive ability alone, the Nationals planned to exercise the option. Now a good deal looks like a bargain. He has also made decisions easy on his manager.
“The way he has played,” Williams said, “he’s right where he needs to be.”