One of the last players ever drafted by the Expos, Ian Desmond broke out with the Nationals at 26 years old as an elite hitting shortstop, with some rare power from the position to boot. He spent his next three seasons hitting at least 20 homers as well as stealing at least 20 bases. Although the power was there, as well as clear talent, some issues starting arising with Desmond.
His contact and consistency started to fall off, and his strikeout percentage soared close to 30%. On top of that, his once average to plus defense deteriorated as he got the yips, so much so that this year he’s been forced to move to the least defensively responsible position, left field. His promising career had taken a sharp turn down to territory that had people wondering if he could even get another job – just a short flier to see if the talent was still there.
Playing baseball in the blistering hot grounds of Arlington is a great way to look like a much better hitter. The hot atmosphere combined with a relative lack of humidity allows balls to fly farther and longer than in most other stadiums. So it’s not too much of a surprise Desmond found the Rangers as his saving grace. He has brought his batting average up almost 90 points, to .322, along with a wRC+ of 133, which would be a career high if it holds. His slugging percentage and OPS are also at career highs, showing just how great of a force he’s been at the plate.
His success goes even deeper than just the production here; he’s also made strides to cut down on his strikeout rate that had gotten so out of hand. He’s down to just 24.5%, and although that is still a little high, it’s closer to his numbers when he was hitting his best, and is a huge cut down from last year’s 29.2%. He has done this by cutting down on swings on pitches both inside and outside the zone, taking his general swing percentage from 50.6% from 2012-15 to just 46.5% this season. By swinging less often he forces pitchers to come to him, and has helped lead to the highest zone percentage of his career at 48.3% (it’s no secret you can hit better when you get better pitches to hit).
We know that discipline stats like these tend to stabilize early and take longer to change, meaning we can expect Desmond to still swing more patiently. However, a lot of his success seems to be coming from pitchers giving him better pitches. Pitches down and away have been kryptonite to him throughout his career, whiffing on them well above his averages, and this year we’ve seen a double effect – he’s swinging less at them, and therefore he’s getting less thrown to him in this spot.
Some point out to Desmond’s high .402 BABIP as a reason to expect regression. Although that number is certainly not sustainable, it may not be as bad as it looks to the people expecting it to go down to .300. First of all his career average on balls in play is .329, and secondly we’re seeing him spread the ball to all fields at an elite rate. His pull percentage is just 30.9%, one of the lowest in the majors as well as over 4 percentage points below his previous career low. It’s easy to beat defensive alignments when you can spray the ball the way Desmond is, and if he can keep it up it would be no surprise to see his BABIP stay at a high level – even above his previous career averages.
So the question looms: is Desmond for real once again, or does he still look ridiculous for turning down a $107MM extension from the Nationals just a little over two years ago? First, we can expect some of this to stay based on merit. I’m a strong believer that once you display a skill you own it, and even with a couple of down years, Desmond has shown enough power and contact to be able to perform at a high level. Second, we know that players do better offensively when moving off of a defensively important position like shortstop, meaning he has less practice to worry about with fielding and can spend that time working on his swing again. And third, the changes that are driving this year’s resurgence are ones that are driven by actual, lasting effort instead of blind luck and a few fortunate bounces. Asking him to continue play at about an 8.0 fWAR pace is a little generous, but don’t be fooled – Ian Desmond is a stud.
It’s tempting as an owner to try and sell high on a hot first half, especially from someone who has had the consistency issues of Desmond, but there are a couple of reasons to hold tight. First, the changes made to him look to be legit, meaning he can stay close to this level for the remainder of the year fairly easily. Second, it will be tough to convince anyone to give you back real value for his performance this year given his two-year slide prior to 2016. Hold on to him if you own him, and if you don’t you should try to find someone trying to get rid of him for fear of a crash.
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