As the ball connected with Devin Mesoraco’s bat late Saturday afternoon, Craig Stammen swung his head around and watched anxiously.
He didn’t want to throw the Cincinnati Reds’ young catcher a fastball, his personal scouting report from facing Mesoraco in Triple-A a few years ago. So he threw him a slider. It stayed out over the plate and Mesoraco crushed it.
But as Stammen held his breath, hoping the 10th-inning mistake with a runner already in scoring position wouldn’t lead to a second consecutive Nationals loss, center fielder Denard Span ran the ball down and effortlessly secured it with a basket catch.
“That catch kind of saved the game for us,” Stammen said, still digesting Washington’s wild 7-6 victory in 11 innings. “He played it great.”
It was one example among a handful that Span provided in the season’s first week of how his ability in the outfield changes the Nationals’ defensive dynamic. He hasn’t really made any plays that make your jaw drop. His presence has been scarce on the highlight reels and among the Web Gem nominees.
But he has made an impact for the Nationals.
In the season’s first six games, Span’s ultimate zone rating (an advanced statistic that attempts to quantify how many runs a player saves or allows in the field) is 0.6 and among the top 10 outfielders in the National League.
Extrapolated over 150 games, to give a more true idea of what his ability could mean with regard to saving runs over the course of a season, Span’s 17.9 would be his best rating since 2011.
His range in center also has a ripple effect on the Nationals’ corner outfielders, allowing Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth to play closer to the foul lines, if they desire, without worrying they need to shade one way or the other based on their fellow outfielders.
What he’s done thus far has gotten his teammates’ attention, even it’s not always obvious.
“He probably caught the ball [Saturday] a foot from the wall,” Werth said. “I’ve played with guys who are considered extremely good outfielders who jump and are feeling for the wall. He just glides back there and catches it. He makes it look good, makes it look easy.
“Sometimes that can be a knock against you. You make things look too easy, people think the play was easy. Whereas some guy looks like he’s out of control and jumps and falls and it’s, ‘Oh my God, what an amazing catch, this guy’s the greatest outfielder of all time.’ Denard, we’re starting to see day-to-day what a tremendous outfielder he is. It just depends who’s looking.”
How routine has that type of thing become for Span? When a reporter approached him Sunday morning to discuss that 10th-inning catch from Saturday, Span began describing a different play.
“It’s something that over the last few years I’ve gotten a lot better at,” Span said of getting good reads off the bat and making those difficult plays looks easy.
“It starts with how I prepare myself during batting practice. I take shagging [during batting practice] seriously. Not so much chasing balls, but I’ll set up just about every pitch. The balls in my vicinity I’ll go after. If a ball’s hit down the right-field line, I’ll still take my hard read or hard step to mentally know the correct step or correct read once the game starts.”
When outfielders reach the point where they make those difficult plays look simple, they’re most often described as “gliding” to the ball. The word depicts a seamless running motion, but it’s more indicative of how strong a read an outfielder can get off the bat, which is what Span works on in batting practice and workouts.
Span wouldn’t put himself in the “gliding” category 100 percent of the time just yet, but he knows what it feels like.
“When you get a good read, you feel like you can just walk the ball down,” he said.
Span may not make the highlight reels very often. He probably won’t make you shake your head and wonder how he did something. He understands that, and he’s fine with it.
“[A lot of times those are] misreads,” Span said. “They’re the ones that you probably take two or three steps backward to go forward, not getting the best read. It seems like the ones that you make look easy are the ones that are the hard plays, but you get a good read on them.”