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4) Have enough faith in his calculations to not swing
5) Have confidence he'll get a better pitch to hit
There are other judgments in addition to these, but the truth is, it's hard enough just to get through the first point. "Wily Mo Peña never saw a slider in his major league career," James says. "He thought they were all fastballs."
Span played football in high school. He thinks this is a big part of his approach. Last year Span had a .392 on-base percentage, third among AL leadoff hitters with at least 300 at bats, behind the Yankees' Derek Jeter and Figgins, then with the Angels and now with the Mariners. It was the highest OBP of Span's career, including his five full years in the minors. How did it happen? Teammates joke that Span "plays angry." He goes into each plate appearance looking to battle on every pitch. "He's relentless," teammate Justin Morneau says.
Span concedes the point. "I think that comes from football," he says. "It's like the defensive back and the wide receiver. Every play, somebody wins. Baseball is a team game, but really it's the hitter against the pitcher. And somebody wins every time out."
It took Span time to focus that energy and aggression into working the count. As a younger player he thought, as most young hitters do, that the best way to win that battle at the plate was to hit the ball 500 feet, or at least for a double in the gap. But over time he realized that the pitcher can be beaten in other ways. Now Span considers any long at bat a win, especially when he's leading off the game. He says that in other situations—say if there's a man in scoring position with two outs—he will get more aggressive. He's aware of the fact that batters throughout the league hit .339 and slugged .558 when they were able to put the first pitch in play. Span hit the first pitch 54 times during the 2009 season and averaged .444 in those situations.
But he also knows that those batting averages are illusions, because they don't count the many foul balls hit on the first pitch—foul balls that give the pitcher a powerful advantage in the count.
So when Span is leading off he has a stringent plan. He almost certainly will not swing at the first pitch. He almost certainly will not swing in hitter's counts such as 2 and 0 or 3 and 1. He almost certainly will do everything he can to foul the ball off if it looks like the pitcher has dazzling stuff.
"When I lead off a game, that at bat doesn't belong to me," he says. "That at bat is for my teammates. I'm trying to get on base for them any way I can. And I'm trying to make the pitcher show his slider or his changeup before he really wants to."
Span's ability to get on base—which helped persuade the Twins to sign him to a five-year, $16.5 million deal last month—does build off his pitch-recognition skills, which he says he always had. And it builds off his determination to stick to his game plan. But perhaps more than anything, it builds off his competitive nature. Last year, when Randy Williams of the White Sox hit him in the head with a pitch, Span's first (conscious) thought was: Well, that will help my on-base percentage.