Denard Span Should Sit Against Lefties

The title is pretty self-explanatory. Someone posted a question on the Giants’ Reddit page today about Denard Span. The poster wanted to know what to expect from Span in 2017, and how much patience the club would have with him after a largely disappointing debut season with his new team.

After signing a three-year, $31M contract last off-season, Span hit just .266/.331/.381 with a .312 wOBA and 96 wRC+ in 637 plate appearances, and he amassed just 1.4 fWAR. His defense — once his finest attribute — was much worse than expected.

Despite some Redditors hoping otherwise, Span won’t be DFA’d early in the season if he struggles. The odds of him being DFA’d at all are very small. The Giants simply do not have a track record of ditching established veterans they signed to multiple-year contracts, except in the most extreme cases.

Span was a disappointment last season, but he still provided some value, especially against right-handed pitching. In 433 plate appearances against righties last season, Span had a .338 wOBA and a 114 wRC+ — useful production indeed. In 204 plate appearances against lefties, Span had a miserable .255 wOBA and 59 wRC+.

This trend is nothing new: In his career, Span has a .336 wOBA and 110 wRC+ against right-handed pitching (~ 3500 PA) and a .313 wOBA and 93 wRC+ against left-handed pitching (~ 1500 PA). When Span played superior center field defense, his skills in the field made him worth playing everyday even if his bat was notably worse against same-handed pitching. Now that he’s no longer an elite defender, his struggles at the plate against lefties should be enough to take him out of the lineup.

Enter Justin Ruggiano, Gorkys Hernandez, Michael Morse, and Chris Marrero. All are right-handed hitters capable of hitting lefties well, but only two (Ruggiano and Hernandez) play center field.

Focusing on the center fielders, Hernandez has reverse splits in a small sample of Major League experience, meaning he’s actually been better against right-handed pitching, but in his minor league career he has been noticeably better against lefties. Ruggiano, meanwhile, has a track record of excellence against left-handed pitching. In 555 career plate appearances, he has a .371 wOBA and 137 wRC+ against southpaws.

If the team elects to go with Jarrett Parker over Mac Williamson as the starting left fielder, there appears to be a definite need for at least one right-handed platoon partner for Parker, whose struggles against lefties are even more pronounced than Span’s. Since Parker is out of options — and Williamson is not — it would make sense for Parker to make the team and for Williamson to be optioned (Bobby Evans has said that he doesn’t anticipate having both on the roster). In that event, the Giants would be wise to have at least two right-handed outfield options on the bench: one capable of playing left field and replacing Parker, the other capable of playing center field and replacing Span.

There’s plenty of time left in spring and much remains to be determined. Mac Williamson could outplay Jarrett Parker by so much that the team can’t justify starting Parker over Williamson, in which case they’d have to get creative with what to do about Parker. With so many veteran right-handed outfielders in camp, and the precise number of backup outfielders the Giants wish to carry on the roster still unknown, there are many possibilities for how the roster will shake out. Even once they choose their Opening Day roster, there are always changes made along the way.

Despite all the uncertainty, one thing seems pretty obvious: the time has come for Denard Span to sit against left-handed pitching. His bat was completely anemic last year against southpaws, and his presence in the lineup, especially at the very top, hurt the team when a lefty was was on the mound. Manager Bruce Bochy and the Giants’ decision makers finally appeared to catch on, as Gorkys Hernandez started (and led off) in lieu of Span against Jon Lester, a left-handed pitcher, in N.L.D.S. Game 1. If the Giants want to make and succeed in the playoffs in 2017, it’s time to bite the bullet and bench Span against lefties.

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