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Is Ian Desmond Risky?

Every player is risky, and paranoia usually serves you well in fantasy. So even when you look at a player like Ian Desmond, who has gone 20/20 with a .280+ batting average in two straight years at a tough position — it’s worth checking under the hood and identifying where the 27-year-old could regress in the coming season.

He’s hit as low as .253 before, so looking at his risk through the lens of batting average might work. After all, the four major components of batting average are probably contact rate, batted ball mix, power and speed. You have to put the ball in play with a level swing while showing the power to turn an infield line drive into an outfield line drive, and the speed to turn a bunt attempt or infield dribbler into a single. In the past two years, Desmond has obviously shown the ability to perform in all four aspects in order to produce a .286 batting average. Before that, though…

Desmond is not the greatest at making contact. His career strikeout rate (20.8%) and his 2013 number (22.1%) are both worse than league average. And his swinging strike rate just went from meh (10.5% career) to blah (12.4% 2013). It’s not his greatest asset. Even if league strikeout rate has steadily been rising, he finds himself on the wrong side of that number most years. And the league batting average with that strikeout rate is in the .250s. So there’s risk here. Not Chris Davis sized batting average risk, but risk.

We started with his worst asset, really. One of his better tools is the ability to hit for power. Over the last two years, he’s raised his isolated slugging percentage to .194 — it was a below-average .125 for his first three years in the league. That number leads all shortstops over the past two years. Looks good.

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But! There’s a bit of risk here too. Not only does he have that early-career lower-power baseline, but he regressed off of his excellent 2012 power numbers last season. And it was reflected in his batted ball distance. He averaged 290 feet (66th in baseball) on his homers and flies in 2012, and that dropped to 285 feet (119th in baseball) last season. He went from being ahead of Mike Napoli to being behind Yunel Escobar. But that’s anecdotal. What’s important is that he might be past his athletic power peak even if he’s in his baseball peak.

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Of course, his batted ball mix has something to do with this power surge. He went from hitting more than one and a half ground balls per fly ball to about one and a quarter the last two years. More fly balls meant more power, and he avoided any paired regression in batting average on balls in play by also having his two best line drive years the past two seasons. Paired with a demonstrated ability to avoid too many infield fly balls — 8.6% career, no season over 9.2%, league average has been between 9.7% and 10.6% recently — that batted ball mix has produced good BABIPs (.324 career). His xBABIP last year was .333, and his real BABIP was .336. His batted ball mix does not suggest added risk.

We don’t have great leading indicators for a loss of speed. You could say he had a career-worst four-component speed score — based on things like doubles and triples, stolen base success rate, stolen base attempts and the like — but it was still above-average and exactly the same as his number in 2012. He doesn’t hit a lot of triples, which seems strange for a guy with his power and speed. His success rate is good (76%) but he doesn’t attempt a ton (ninth-most stolen bases over the last two years, which were in line with career norms). There is some risk here, if he drops below the league average with the legs.

So in three of the four components of batting average, we see some risk. He strikes out a bit much. His power might be regressing off a peak and is only projected to be a tick above average next year. His speed is only slightly above-average. Of course, if you add “slightly below average” to “slightly above-average” in three categories — especially if you’re unsure how exactly to weight each category — you still get the capacity for a good batting average.

For now.