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Ian Desmond’s Breakout Year

Who was one of the most surprising shortstops this season? Your fourth ranked Nationals breakout star Ian Desmond, who earned $19 this season. Obviously, no one saw this coming. The RotoGraphs consensus ranked him just 15th at the position, and no one was more optimstic than Jeff Zimmerman at 14, whose ranking was based on ZiPS projections. If it weren’t for a torn oblique injury that forced him to miss nearly a month of the season, his counting stats, and resulting ranking, would have been even better. So has he established a new level of skill, or was this just a typical career year ripe for regression?

I will start out with the most glaring difference in Desmond this year, his sudden status as a masher at a position you don’t normally get a whole lot of power from. Desmond had just just 18 homers combined during his first two full seasons in the league, having never posted a HR/FB ratio above 7.7% or ISO exceeding .124. Then out of nowhere, he goes on to ISO .218, while clubbing 25 bombs and hitting 18.2% of his fly balls out of the park. Woah, that is one heck of a spike.

His doubles rate increased as well, though not by as significant a rate as his home runs. That’s a good sign because it at last seems to suggest that it wasn’t just a couple of additional gusts of wind turning his doubles into homers, but a true jump in overall power.

Desmond’s distance data is rather promising as well. His average home run and fly ball distance bounced from a league average 273 feet last year to a pretty strong 292 feet this season. However, we also see that he averaged this exact same distance back in 2010, yet only managed to muster a 7.7% HR/FB ratio. That 2010 distance may have been a foreshadowing of a future HR/FB rate spike or just illustrate the perils of using these distances to predict HR/FB ratios to begin with. Looking at his ESPN Home Run Tracker data, 8 of his 25 shots were classified as “just enough”, which is just 1 more than the league average mark, so no red flag there. His average standard distance was most impressive, coming in at a whopping 407 feet, well above the National League average of 395.7 feet. The distance also compares favorably to previous years of 389 and 400 feet.

Desmond will spend the majority of the 2013 season at the magical age of 27. He was at the perfect age to see a power spike this year and none of the underlying metrics raise any obvious red flags. While I would always caution against projecting a repeat of a significant breakout, Desmond looks to hold onto most of his power gains. I wouldn’t project another high teen HR/FB mark, but a 13%-15% mark sounds reasonable.

Aside from the newfound power, Desmond also brings speed to the table, as he has now swiped 20+ bases two seasons in a row. His batting average, though, is likely to slip as a slight regression in his BABIP, plus a lower HR/FB ratio that turns this year’s homers into fly ball outs, means that he should settle back into the .275-.280 range.

Since Desmond is now an across the board contributor, he should again be a top 10 shortstop next season. While last season’s breakouts are typically overvalued, I don’t think Desmond’s name recognition will push his price up too highly. This is all speculation of course and highly dependent on your specific league, but I have a feeling he actually ends up fairly valued at your draft, and not someone I would nominate early on as a bust candidate.