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The Maturation of Ian Desmond

Ian Desmond has come a long way. Two years ago, Desmond was in the conversation for worst regular in the majors. He couldn’t hit, rarely walked and didn’t even provide value on defense. At 25-years-old, it wasn’t as if Desmond was a young prospect figuring things out. Just when it looked like he was a lost cause, Desmond started to figure things out. Over the past two seasons, he’s taken himself from borderline starter to one of the best shortstops in the game.

Among qualified players, Desmond ranks first among shortstops with a 10.2 WAR over the past two years. There’s no doubt Troy Tulowitzki is the better player, but he hasn’t been healthy enough to claim the throne. The biggest change to Desmond’s value has been his surging home run total. After hitting just 18 long balls from 2010 to 2011, Desmond has pumped out 45 home runs the last two seasons. He’s been able to do this in spite of less than ideal peripherals. Desmond isn’t patient at the plate, walking just 5.7% in his career. At the same time, he’s prone to strikeouts, averaging a 20.8% strikeout rate. Those numbers make him one of the most unique shortstops to play the game in recent history.

Ian Desmond 1130 45 40 6.30% 21.60% 0.204 0.288 0.335 0.491 0.356 126 10.2
Khalil Greene 1119 42 9 6.30% 19.20% 0.201 0.250 0.303 0.452 0.323 98 5.3
Alex Gonzalez 1181 41 3 5.10% 19.60% 0.187 0.243 0.291 0.431 0.303 83 3.8

The above chart shows the two shortstops in the last 40 years who have similar walk and strikeout rates to Desmond. Neither Khalil Greene nor Alex Gonzalez are great comps for Desmond, as he has been much better according to wOBA. It does go to show how unique Desmond’s skill set is for a shortstop.

In order to find better offensive comps, we can open up the search to include all positions. Doing so puts Desmond in some interesting company.

Alfonso Soriano 1475 77 76 4.10% 19.50% 0.241 0.295 0.335 0.536 0.370 128 10.5
Ian Desmond 1130 45 40 6.30% 21.60% 0.204 0.288 0.335 0.491 0.356 126 10.2
Tony Armas 1128 57 10 4.30% 21.50% 0.220 0.272 0.304 0.492 0.350 123 9.3
Jacque Jones 1146 41 18 6.60% 19.30% 0.180 0.289 0.338 0.469 0.347 110 6.1
Khalil Greene 1119 42 9 6.30% 19.20% 0.201 0.250 0.303 0.452 0.323 98 5.3
Mark Teahen 1194 27 12 7.00% 21.30% 0.142 0.263 0.319 0.405 0.317 88 -1.1

The presence of Alfonso Soriano shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise, as he was also a low on-base, high power middle infielder. Soriano was a much better hitter over the same period, though he wasn’t nearly the same defensive player. Tony Armas finishes with the third highest wOBA here, but he took aggressiveness at the plate to the extreme, walking in just 4.3% of plate appearances. Jacque Jones is actually a somewhat interesting comp. The main thing separating the two is Desmond’s advantage in slugging.

Of course, comparing Desmond to Jones is a bit of an insult to Desmond. Jones was, at times, a passable corner outfielder. Desmond hits like a passable corner outfielder, but plays one of the toughest defensive positions. And given UZR’s new-found love for Desmond’s defense, it seems like he can stick there for at least a few more seasons. This is a case where the metrics eventually fell in line with what scouts projected, as he received some encouraging defensive scouting reports before coming up.

Where does that leave Desmond? He’s better than Jones, but not as good as Soriano from an offensive standpoint. At the same time, there’s no concern about Desmond moving out of the middle infield. As long as his defense remains solid, Desmond should be able to weather the years where his BABIP takes a tumble. Two years ago, it was unclear whether he even belonged in the majors. Now, he looks like an incredible bargain for the Nationals.