The Nationals knew they were getting a classic leadoff hitter in Denard Span, but they might not have fully appreciated how much his patience at the plate would pay dividends throughout their lineup.
Seven games into the season, Span is not only getting on base. He's really making pitchers work before he gets on base.
Span enters tonight's game against the White Sox having reached base in 15 of 31 plate appearances, good for a .484 on-base percentage that ranks sixth in the NL. He's also seeing a hefty 4.29 pitches per at-bat, seventh-most in the league.
"I'm a firm believer in not giving away at-bats," he said. "Even if it is me swinging at the first pitch, I want to make sure it's a good pitch and put a good, quality swing on it. And if I make an out, I want to make a quality out. That's a big part of my game."
Span's patience and lengthy at-bats benefit not only himself, but the guys hitting behind him in the Nationals' lineup. Not only do they get to see more of what the opposing pitcher is doing on a given night, they also benefit from that pitcher wearing down sooner and perhaps being more vulnerable to a big hit later in the game.
"He's taxing the pitcher," said Jayson Werth, himself one of the most patient hitters in baseball. "He gets more at-bats than anybody else. As the game goes on, you go through a lineup, you're going to have to, as a pitcher, have to get through the lineup. It's going to be tougher for him. He's throwing more pitches. He's got to throw more pitches that mean more. ... By the time you get to the third time through [the lineup], the guy's throwing a lot of meaningful pitches."
The Nationals had a sense of Span's abilities when they acquired him from the Twins in December, but they paid more attention to his high on-base percentage (.358 in his career) and his defensive prowess in center field. They've since come to appreciate his more subtle skills now that they've had a chance to see him play on a daily basis.
"I looked at him a couple years ago when we were after him, because a couple players on my roster we were going to give up," manager Davey Johnson said. "And I liked what I saw a couple years ago. ... But he knows what he's doing. He's your prototypical leadoff guy."
"That's something we've been missing," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Not necessarily a guy that sees pitches, because Jayson sees more pitches than anybody in the league. But a guy who's constantly on base. We've got a small taste of it here. I think over the course of a year, you're going to see the difference that can make."