Ian Desmond Has Natitude

Ian Desmond has become a legitimate threat in the lineup. This may come as a big surprise to fans of sabermetrics, as Desmond’s swing-happy approach, led to him being one of the worst regulars in baseball. Last season, Desmond finished ahead of only Yuniesky Betancourt and Alex Gonzalez in WAR at the shortstop position. This year, he trails Elvis Andrus 3.8 to 3.7. If not for a recent oblique injury, Desmond would likely be the most valuable shortstop in baseball this season. While his approach hasn’t changed much, there are some signs that he’s become a better player.

The biggest change has been Desmond’s ability to hit for power. Through 385 plate appearances, Desmond already has 17 home runs. For reference, Desmond has hit just 18 home runs in his last two seasons combined. Throughout his career, Desmond has relied on pull-power for home runs. While he’s still very dependent on his ability to hit home runs to left field, Desmond has has begun to slug to all fields for the first time in his career. Coming into this season, Desmond had never hit a home run to the opposite field. He’s already hit three this year.

Opposite Field HR SLG wOBA wRC+
2010 0.373 0.289 75
2011 0.376 0.280 73
2012 3 0.470 0.324 101

After two years of being a below average hitter to the opposite field, Desmond’s power surge has finally made him an average hitter to right. A similar improvement has happened in center, where Desmond has a .547 slugging percentage and a 137 wRC+ this year, both of which are career highs.

Desmond new-found ability to hit for power is definitely surprising, but his ability to do so to all fields was really unpredictable, especially after last season. Desmond only hit eight home runs last season, all of which were pulled to left. He didn’t hit any home runs to center or to the opposite field in 2011. And while half of his home runs were hit to center in 2010, he was still a slightly below-average hitter up-the-middle. Desmond needs to retain those improvements to center and to the opposite field, because there’s no way that his 47.4% HR/FB rate to left is sustainable going forward.

While power has been the driving force behind Desmond’s breakout, he’s also made significant progress against right-handed pitching.

Vs Righties AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2010 0.257 0.295 0.369 0.291 76
2011 0.264 0.300 0.359 0.289 79
2012 0.284 0.329 0.482 0.348 118

After struggling to hit same-handed pitchers over his career, Desmond has finally emerged as an above-average option against them at the plate. And, obviously, his improvement against righties has been a contributor to his power surge. After two season of sub-par slugging numbers against righties, Desmond has managed to raise his slugging percentage to .482 against them this year.

Desmond’s breakout has been fueled completely by power. And because Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse missed significant time earlier in the season, Desmond has emerged as the team’s best hitter this year. He still has an aggressive approach, and refuses to take walks, which could be a concern going forward. If his power surge can continue in the future, it may not matter. For the first time in his career, Desmond finally looks like a strong major-league ballplayer. That’s quite a turnaround from last season.

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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

30 Responses to “Ian Desmond Has Natitude”

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  1. jesse says:

    Despite not actually saying it, I would think these two things a very linked. It would make sense that his willingness to take silder and cutters away from rhp to the opposite field for power instead of trying to pull them would lead to these improvements.

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  2. diegosanchez says:

    I guess Andrew Friedman didn’t think trading BJ Upton for this guy last season was a good idea. And now BJ is going to walk with no compensation. Fail.

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    • Matt says:

      Yeah, total FAIL. How could he have not predicted this exact occurrence 12 months earlier? I mean, everyone at that time was talking about Ian Desmond as a future breakout star and not a somewhat toolsy middle infielder with less-than-zero plate discipline. Meanwhile, all the Rays got with BJ Upton in CF last year was a playoff berth by the tiniest of margins after one of the most exciting playoff runs ever. In conclusion, Andrew Friedman is awful and they should really get rid of that guy.

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      • YanksFanInBeantown says:

        I approve!

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      • fresheee says:

        Not sure if I’m reading the sarcasm correctly, but Desmond actually was talked about as a future breakout star last season. Being “somewhat toolsy” can easily translate to having significant potential. When Davey Johnson took over last year, he sang nothing but praises. Opposing managers, including La Russa, have done the same.

        It’s not a scientific approach, but watching Desmond in 2010 and 2011 it was fairly clear that he had the ability to turn things around. Wasn’t clear he would turn things around, but that’s very rarely the case.

        That said, catching one of his home run balls in 2010 probably makes my opinions totally hollow.

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      • diegosanchez says:

        I believe he could have predicted the relevant CBA rule changes 12 months ago. I also believe he knows/knew bj upton is not going to get any better, and that Desmond at least had a chance to. And I believe several other things could have gotten the team a few more wins last season, such as promoting Desmond Jennings earlier. Not trying to say I didn’t enjoy the hell out of game 162, but if he thinks the goal is making the playoffs and not winning the world series, I guess you have a point.

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      • jim says:

        matt 1, diego 0

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      • macseries says:

        on the other hand, fail as a verb is one of the few things about internet speak that gets my goat. i’d +1 matt’s comment if it weren’t an ambiguous gesture.

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  3. MK says:

    His defense is also sabermetrically better, but in observations I attribute it mostly to Adam LaRoche. His ability to catch nearly everything Desi and Zimm thrown over there has made the left side of the infield seem much better. Desmond has always had the range and with LaRoche bailing out his errant throws appears to be a better defender.

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    • RobBob says:

      LaRoche’s contributions are overstated, at least with regard to Desmond. Ian has a very accurate arm and nearly always throws right to the target. Now, Zimmerman, on the other hand…

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      • fresheee says:

        Agreed. But, Desmond has always come off as a bit too “in his own head” as they say. I think the mental relief of throwing to LaRoche instead of Big Donkey Dunn shouldn’t be overlooked.

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      • Pig.Pen says:

        Desmond isn’t “in his own head” because he’s clutch. In fact he encourages the Nats starters to pitch to contact and doesn’t cheat the game by taking walks. He’s a gamer.

        All sarcasm aside, who did Desmond come off a bit too “in his own head” to? Did you meet him, have dinner together, play golf together regularly?

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  4. kwyjibo says:

    Surprising? Unpredictable? Uh oh let’s cross our fingers.

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  5. TKDC says:

    “Desmond needs to retain those improvements to center and to the opposite field, because there’s no way that his 47.4% HR/FB rate to left is sustainable going forward.”

    In other words, most of his improvement is in a likely unsustainable spike in HRs.

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    • JCA says:

      Looking into his LD /GB/ FB splits to left this year, it is about 2:6:2. Is it unusual to have LDs and FBs that close in terms percentage of contact to the pull field? Is the denominator in HR / FB just flies, or is it all balls in the air? Does having LD nearly equal to FB indicate when he hits a ball in the air to left, he has been squaring it up?

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    • lester bangs says:

      Every HR spike comes with a spike in HR/FB. Sometimes it is a player maturing. It’s funny how this is laughed off so often.

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      • TKDC says:

        Can you think of a middle infielder (or any player) with a profile like Desmond that has been a good hitter longterm? The best I could find was Woodie Held, but he actually dramatically improved his walk rate after looking a lot like Desmond early in his career. So I guess it is possible. Ian Desmond, the next Woodie Held!

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  6. Mat says:

    This article ignited my natitude.

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  7. chiefglockandhummer says:

    my girlfriend thinks because her name is nat that it’s okay for her to root for the nats.

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  8. tonysoprano says:

    Nats are playing some awesome ball. Hope they keep it up.

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  9. Expos67 says:

    Can’t stop thinking we could have had all this in Montréal…

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  10. steve-o says:

    I hope MLB has improved their COC.

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  11. mockcarr says:

    I’m pretty sure power was the only way for Desmond to keep his job since he won’t take a walk and strikes out too much to have a good BA, and he was further miscast as a contact-led, fast leadoff hitter. Before the injury, he’d stopped taking a step back a hop and throwing off the wrong foot, so I think there’s hope that he’s actually improved defensively too.

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  12. Juan Chapa says:

    The point to look at is how well he adjusts. I am sure pitchers will
    pitch him different next year, trying to make him swing at pitches
    that end up outside the strike zone. I don’t think he refuses to
    take walks, but was just keyed on the strike zone, and the team
    needed him to step up this year. Additionally, pitchers started
    challenging him and he was up to the challenge. Eventually,
    they’ll start pitching him differently. Hopefully, he will not fall
    for their new strategy like Josh Hamilton has. Hamilton has been
    making rookie in the batter’s box. Unfortunately, money players
    are judged on how well they handle adversity. Hamilton doesn’t.

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