What’s Up With Ian Desmond?

Perhaps it’s Ian Desmond’s fan-friendly attitude, or perhaps it’s because many secretly suspected the shortstop couldn’t keep up the gains he made in 2012 and 2013. Whatever it is there has been a surprising lack of attention being paid to the struggles the Nats starting shortstop is having at the plate in 2014. After a 2012 where Desmond batted .292/.335/.511 with a 128 wRC+ and a 2013 where he batted .280/.331/.453 with a 116 wRC+, it’s disappointing to see Desmond sitting around a .225/.295/.413 line with a 97 wRC+ through 241 plate appearances this year. The $7 million question though is what will Desmond produce at the plate through the end of the season?

The answer is a mixed bag. When you look in the right places there are some encouraging signs that Desmond will be able to pick it up over the coming months. Desmond has walked in 7.9% of his plate appearances this year, which is just a tick below the league average of 8.1% this year. It is also easily the highest walk rate of his career. For his career Desmond has only walked at a 5.8% clip and his career high before this season was 6.6% in 2013. Even if Desmond’s batting average doesn’t reach its 2012-13 heights, the increased number of walks could sustain his on-base percentage at an above average level.

His higher walk rate is also accompanied by a decreased swing rate at pitches outside of the strike zone. Desmond is swinging at just 33.3% of pitches outside the zone, well below his O-Swing% in 2012 (38.3%) and 2013 (34.5%). We discussed last week how O-Swing% is a strong predictor of in-season walk rate. So those two factors together suggest that the increase in walks might not be a fluke and Desmond may be seeing the ball better than his overall numbers indicate.

Desmond’s power numbers also present good news. Desmond leads the team with 11 home runs, already more than he had in 2010 or 2011. Desmond’s ISO, or isolated power which is the difference between a batter’s slugging percentage and batting average, is .188 in 2014, right in line with his average ISO of .194 in 2012-13. The power was what most people suspected Desmond wouldn’t be able to hold onto, but so far that seems to have stayed as a permanent part of his batting profile.

However, not everything is sunshine and rainbows. Desmond also currently possesses a 27.4% strikeout rate, well above his career average of 21.3%. That’s a significant increase that is doing no favors to his depressed batting average. Looking at his peripheral numbers doesn’t provide much encouragement either. Desmond is making contact with just 71.3% of the pitches he has swung at, well below his career average of 77.7% and his 2013 contact rate of 75.3%. Unsurprisingly that has also led to an increase in his swinging strike rate, up to 14.1% from 12.4% in 2013.

The biggest difference between 2014 and 2012-13 for Desmond though is his batting average on balls in play. Desmond’s average BABIP in 2012-13 was .335 and his career average BABIP is .320, but in 2014 Desmond’s BABIP is .268. Whenever an abnormal BABIP comes into play the general thought is that it’s mostly due to luck and that it will correct itself. However, there is a bit of statistical evidence behind Desmond’s BABIP decrease. Desmond’s ground ball to fly ball ratio is down to 1.23, the lowest of his career, and his line drive rate is just a paltry 11.1%. These are both partially fueled by Desmond’s monstrous 16.4% infield fly ball rate. While BABIP is a fairly luck driven stat, making weak contact so often will also depress it.

Overall, Desmond isn’t hitting that badly for a shortstop as it is. If he continues to mash home runs, walk at a league average rate and plays defense closer to the base line he established in 2011-13 he would be a solid starter at shortstop. However, after seeing the 5.0 wins above replacement Ian Desmond in 2012 and 2013 it’s hard to adjust expectations down to a 3.5 wins above replacement level.

In any case, concerns that Desmond has reverted back to the 2010-11 version of himself are misplaced. The power is still there and the walks are a big positive that were not a part of Desmond’s game before. The areas where he’s struggling were ones where Desmond produced fairly consistent numbers between 2010-11 and 2012-13. He might not be a top hitter, but that doesn’t mean he still can’t provide a positive contribution. Going forward I expect Desmond to at least be a league average hitter, but would not be that surprised to see Desmond get close to his 2012-13 numbers.

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