One of the big questions coming into 2013 was if Ian Desmond’s 2012 was a
career year or a breakout year. There was evidence to suggest the latter, but
plenty of fear that it was the former. When Davey Johnson took over in the
middle of 2011 he noticed a problem with the Nationals batting approach: Nationals
hitters were too concerned with going the other way, and the hitter most affected
was Ian Desmond. Trying to go the other way won’t always result in a batter
being able to go the other way as Desmond’s batted ball data suggests that not
much has changed in hit location. In 2010 Desmond had 79 at bats that ended
with the ball going the opposite way, 97 in 2011, and 79 in 2012. The big
difference in Desmond came in his line drive and fly ball rate.
In 2010 and 2011 Desmond had ground ball
rates of 52.7% and 51.9% respectively and in 2011 he hit .265/.265/.287 on
ground balls. Not much changed on ground balls in 2012 and not much can change
as it is extremely difficult to get an extra base hit on a ground ball. In 2012
Desmond had a slash line of .306/.306/.389, but the big thing was Desmond’s
ground ball rate dropped to 47.6%. The big difference in Desmond’s hitting from
before Davey Johnson took over and after is Desmond stopped trying to take everything
the other way. It is very difficult to gets your hands inside an inside pitch
and most of the time trying to do so will lead to a weakly hit ground ball.
Good hitters hit the ball where it is pitched, taking pitches away to the
opposite field and pulling pitches inside.
This is what Desmond started to do and
thus he hit fewer ground balls and got more balls in the air. This is good for
Desmond as he always had natural power, but he wasn’t using it. In 2010 and
2011 Desmond had fly ball rates of 31.6% and 30.5%. In 2012 that rose to 34.5%,
but the big and important difference is that those fly balls were for the most
part no longer accidents. Desmond was trying to pull inside pitches in the air
and so his HR/FB percent rose from 6.0% in 2011 to 18.2% in 2012. Desmond’s raw
batting line on fly balls in 2011 was a pathetic .177/.170/.346 and in 2012 an
impressive .242/.241/.788. Desmond was now hitting the ball where it was
pitched and when he put it in play in the air it was now with power instead of
a meekly hit fly out to short center field.
The big question was would this change
continue into 2013. The change in approach was known, but the numbers were
still shockingly high. By fWAR Ian Desmond was the best shortstop in baseball.
That is an impressive improvement for someone whose main value in 2011 came
from the fact that he happened to be a shortstop and there aren’t very many
players in baseball that can do that at even a below average level. Through 13
games in 2013 it looks like Desmond is picking up right where he left off in
2012. His overall batting line of .320/.327/.600 is impressive, but it is also
a small sample size. What is more important is that his approach has stayed the
same. So far in 2013 Desmond is hitting even less ground balls with a ground
ball rate of 35.9%, has seen an increase in fly ball rate to 43.6%, but so far
a decrease in HR/FB% at 11.8%. Desmond is hitting more line drives so far in
2013 than he did in 2012, but it is still too early to make much of a marginal
change in one category.
The big change in Ian Desmond between
2011 and 2012 was that he started to use his power more. He put more balls in
the air and he did so with authority. So far in 2013 that has continued. In
2013 Desmond is batting .357/.333/1.000 on fly balls, but the important numbers
are the rates, and so far in 2013 Desmond is the same hitter as he was in 2012.
Whether he equals, or even exceeds, his 2012 numbers remains to be seen. 2012
was a great season and could still be a career year, even if it was the harbinger
of things to come for Ian Desmond. 5.0 fWAR seasons are rare, and Desmond had
one in 2012. He may never have one of those again, but early data indicates
that he also may never go back to being a 1.0 fWAR short stop either. It is
important to remember, in baseball, that approach is more important than
results, and as long as Desmond keeps with the approach of driving the ball
where it is pitched then he will continue to hit with power.
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