OutSpanding: Denard’s rise from washout to standout
Despite the tireless efforts of my Onomatology contacts, the meaning of Keiunta Denard Span’s proname could not be unearthed. So I’ll just make up my own meaning: Keiunta-- “He who temporarily underachieves athletically only to ascend to rapid MLB prominence with funky batting stance and hands quicker than Roy Jones, Jr.” (In an ironic caveat, positionally/nostalgically speaking, Torii Hunter told the New York Times this weekend that he was referred to a “Kedar Hunter,” his middle name, up until his final year of high school).
When Denard Span, the Twins' 2002 1st round draft pick, was optioned back to AAA Rochester at the closure of spring training, it was widely reported that he openly wept. It wasn’t the first time that Span displayed overt emotion off the field. But for those who whispered about Span's manhood, his rapid ascent to pivotal and necessary component to the Twins playoff run since his (2nd) recall on June 30th has quieted all doubters.
Since that date, and heading into Sunday’s afternoon set with the Royals, Span has either been on base via hit or walk, or driven in a run, in 28 of his 34 games played. Furthermore, since that final day in June, Span ranks third in batting among all A.L. outfielders, 6th in on base-plus-slugging percentage, and a most impressive 1st in pure on base percentage. Span’s demeanor, his seasonal average of .322 (including .397 with men on base), his sensational glove work and his overtly discernible look of belonging have rapidly quieted naysayers and exhibited that those aforementioned tears weren’t delivered from weakness, rather they were the result of a deeply-rooted personal knowing that he truly belonged at this level. Now we all know. That career-low .267 that Span clipped at Rochester last season wasn’t a result of mediocrity -- it was because he was bored.
"I finally got an opportunity to come up here and to play at this level," Span told MLB.com in late April after the closure of his initial call-up this season, filling in during Michael Cuddyer’s first stint on the DL. "Now I know I can play up here. So I'm just going to go down there and continue with the same mentality I had when I got sent down out of Spring Training. Just go down there and prove to everybody why I should be here permanently."
Since Span took over the leadoff slot from Carlos Gomez on July 22nd, he has hit .315 in that spot in the order, with an on base percentage of .390. Since that date, he ranks a very solid 6th among A.L. outfielders with 3.95 pitcher per at-bat. And shockingly, those batting numbers are below what he was doing when he was batting 9th. In 19 games from the leadoff slot, Denard has worked 9 walks. In 90 games in that space, Carlos Gomez accrued 15.
However, the switch has worked well for both parties, given both Span’s aforementioned numbers combined with the fact that Gomez is hitting .325 in his 15 games batting 9th.
Denard’s success has carried over to the defensive side as well. He’s made an acceptable 3 errors in 41 games out in right, and -- among all MLB right fielders with at least 40 starts-- is ranked 5th in zone rating at .927. What can’t be captured in these numbers is what can be witnessed on SportsCenter on a seemingly nightly basis. In short: the dude has been fast, fearless, nearly faultless and downright fantastic in his ability to shag anything within his glove’s realm.
Player for player, he’s better than Carlos Gomez. Should poor Cuddy’s cards not have trended toward the black magic, I’d be all for starting Span in center and sending Go-Go to the Bench-Bench. Both are fine young talents and are great fun to watch hitting/running back-to-back. But Denard has proven in relatively short MLB time that the center field job he was supposedly slotted to inherit, was and is a job for which he is both deserved and worthy. To paraphrase Smokey Robinson, those were no tears of a clown.
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