Nationals Baseball: Offensive Keyhole : Ian Desmond

Monday, March 14, 2011

Offensive Keyhole : Ian Desmond

Last year I introduced the idea of an "offensive keyhole". This was a player that fit 3 criteria
  1. will start the season or play a lot of games at a position
  2. have presented a projection that we believe in but could be wildly off for non-injury reasons.
  3. who's performance could significantly effect the performance of the team.
What makes this player different than an "offensive key" is that second point. An offensive key is someone that we don't feel sure how they will do. They may do very well and drive the team to success. They may do very poorly and drive the team to failure. An offensive keyhole is someone that we are pretty confident in how well they will do, but shouldn't be. This year I present to you Ian Desmond as the Nats offensive keyhole.

There aren't many other options. Zimmerman, Werth, and LaRoche all have a long enough track records that any performance other than the expected respective awesome, very good, and average would be a surprise. Morgan is a complete wild card after last years crash. Morse, Bernadina, Espinosa, and Ramos all don't have enough major league time for good evaluation. It falls to Desmond almost in default. If the Nats' spring wasn't filled with worrying about 4th/5th starters and two OF positions and the showing of the most heralded power prospect of this generation things might be different. Fans might be paying more attention to Ian rather than setting and forgetting him, but that is what's going on.

What ARE Nats fans expecting from Ian Desmond? I don't think it's too much. Last year he put up a line of .269 / .308 / .392. Projections have him in the .275 / .325 / .420 range - so a couple more hits, a couple more homers. Is that line crazy? . 275 and a mere 15 homers? It just may be.

Remember that Ian was moving up the minors at a snails pace before 2009. Often he was bumped up not because he forced the issue, but because it was necessary for his development not to linger too long in the low levels. He never had high averages. He never showed much interest in walking. His power came in bursts here or there. Since he always seemed to hang on at the higher level it didn't seem crazy that he'd make the majors, but it was getting more and more likely that it would be after age 25 in maybe a reserve role.

Then in 2009, Desmond "got it". He hit .300 with pop in 42 games in AA, .350 in 55 games in AAA. With SS manned by the offensive mediocrity of Cristian Guzman there was no reason to hold him back. But a closer look at 2009 shows some numbers that are disturbing. He had a batting average of balls in play of .371 in AA and .425 in AAA. Those are numbers that suggest luck as much as skill. One could argue that the AA performance was Ian finding his groove and crushing the ball all over the place. I wouldn't think so, but with those power numbers I think the argument could be made. Those AAA numbers though, that reeks of a lucky streak.

It does seem odd to argue that a player was "lucky" for what amounts to a season, but really it was <100 games. We've all seen players have a hot season up until the All-Star break then cool off. That's 90 games. I'm not saying I don't think Desmond improved, but I'm thinking he got better AND was really lucky.

Worse yet the major league numbers from last year show a player who may not have what it takes. Remember, Ian was this close to being sent down around the All-Star break last year before going on a tear. After that hot July and August, he finished the season by going .239 / .288 / .330 in September. His walk rate for the season was the lowest of qualified batters in the NL. His K-rate was up there where the sluggers swing and miss*. His LD% (rough percentage of hits that are line drives) was among the lowest in the league. These are all bad things.

*To give you an idea - the only guys around in K-rate to Desmond with less power were the two complete disasters of leadoff hitters (Michael Bourn and Nyjer) and a Petco guy Chase Headley. Other guys around him with maybe a bit more power - Garrett Jones, Dexter Fowler... these aren't the guys you want to be compared to.

Looking at how he was pitched - it is easy to see what happened. He got a TON less fastballs to hit (went from 77% of pitches thrown to him in his brief 2009 sting to 57% last year), and he swung at these off-speed pitches all the time (Swinging percentage of pitches out of the strike zone jumped from 25% to 33%). I suppose it could be something Desmond could learn to deal with but he was never forced to since being brought into the Nats system. He was pushed up despite being the hitter he is not because of it.

I'm glad Desmond is being batted 2nd because he isn't the type of hitter that can take being pitched around in the 8th hole, but it might in fact be a problem. It is quite possible that rather than Desmond prospering because he is batting 2nd ahead of a trio of good to great hitters, that instead it's the only thing propping him up. That in any other spot in the lineup Desmond would fail and fail hard.

Desmond is still most likely to hit his projections - that's what these things are for - and I was wrong last year (though only in a "worse than expected" way) so I could be wrong this year too. But I'd say there's a decent chance that Nats fans who have not thought about Desmond because they were sure he'd be fine this year might be in for a nasty surprise.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree. I hope they have Desmond on a short leash. The fact that they haven't even TRIED Espinosa at SS this Spring scares me. Desmond does not appear to have improved defensively at all. He may have the attitude, but he's not Derek Jeter on the field or at the Plate.

A line up with Bixler at 2B and Espinosa at SS would mean an improved offense and probably be no worse than the current set up.

Sec314 said...

Uh, that was me, just there

Lee said...

Ahhh nuts. And just when I was beginning to think good things about these guys. Good point above about Bixler though. Having a great spring has to be a better option than Cora and Harriston, right?

Perhaps I needed this though. The spring training wins are begining to create a strong case of the homers.

Marsden said...

The possible problems with Desmond will be even worse if there are problems at lead-off or if someone like LaRoche gets off to a slow start (which he did when he first landed in Pittsburgh).

Harper said...

Sec 314 - Right now, at least, I doubt he's on a short leash. Though maybe a minor leaguer will change things up.

Lee - it's still ok. Most likely he'll be right about the same. And maybe this will be "that year" where everyone does well. (Of course it would be a waste this year - that would only scrape the Nats into the playoff picture)

Trescmi - It'll certainly make the team worse, but I think if there are lead off problems - that'll dominate the talk and Desmond having issues might just stay off the radar a bit longer.