Nationals Baseball: Ian Desmond - not what I thought

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Ian Desmond - not what I thought

Since hating on Ian is the in thing to do (and completely rightfully so, he's been awful) I went back to see what I was worried about when I evaluated Ian this offseason. Contact rate dropping, swinging strike rate going up, unable to turn on pitches down the middle... OK well I guess things have continued on their unmerry way.

Except they haven't.

Looking at the fancy numbers he isn't making less contact, or swinging and missing more. You could argue a tweak here looks worse with his approach, but you could actually argue a tweak here looks better. If he's not getting worse at the plate in what he's swinging at and if he's making contact, why then is he getting worse results? It's not just bad luck (BABIP is fine).

One thing is his HR/FB rate is way down from 18.2% to 9.3%. Now that could be luck or it could not be. What do the charts tell me? Well without taking up all that space - he's turning pitches up and in (in the zone) that he used to hit for FBs into GBs. I don't have to tell you that you don't hit many GB homeruns. The pitches that he is hitting for flyballs on the inside of the plate are no longer going out.

It could be his bat speed is going (he is hitting more soft hits and fewer hard ones) It could. It could also be his bat is just a little off, balls are hit softer when you don't hit them square. Either way that drop in power is the difference between a .222 guy with 5 homeruns you are wanting to see benched and a .242, 10 homer guy you say "there are bigger issues right now" about.

However that's not the only issue. His walk rate is down significantly. This is a bit of a conundrum. How do you manage to take half as many walks without making less contract or seeing more pitches in the zone (that could be taken for strikes)? The answer is potentially in bad contact. Although he's not swinging and missing more, he's swinging a bit more, and doing this more outside the zone than inside.  He's making more contact outside the zone so potentially that would mean more foul balls. And yes - that's what we see. A bump in foul balls by over a percent from last year.

Other numbers that have changed - his 3-0, 2-0, 3-1 counts seen are down...  his strikes looking hasn't changed.... his P/PA is way down... ok a clearer picture is coming into view.

Despite all the K's Ian isn't wildly flailing at pitches trying for homers, at least it doesn't appear that way. It appears he is being increasingly aggressive (he's swung at neatly 45% of first pitches) and making contact but not good contact. He's fouling away more balls and putting more weak balls into play. He's ending up with a ton of K's again because he's putting himself in a lot of bad counts when he isn't grounding out, but not because he's losing his ability to tell strikes from balls. (He was never all that good at that).

This gives me some hope that it could be an approach issue. If he's trying toget more base hits, either under pressure of free agency or to combat the dropping batting average (or both), then we can see a better Ian the rest of the year. In this case he's just not playing to his strengths, which is crushing mistakes and "his pitches", while lucking into a few walks, and maybe someone can get him back to doing that. He may be a .250-.260 20-25HR guy, crashing because he's trying to put balls in play he normally wouldn't trying to be a .290 guy that he was that one year.

The other possibility is that he's just not able to make good contact anymore. He's just missing on pitches he should be hitting hard and it's bringing down his biggest skill set, his power. Everything else doesn't necessarily have to be this bad. Because we don't see other stats falling, it's likely the extras swings we see are compensation for the lack of power. Frustration swings, let's call them. Calm him down and he could hit .235+ and walk a bit more. Of course this is just a band-aid. Without the power he's not going to be a worthwhile offensive player.


WiredHK said...

Excellent analysis, Harper. To me, this would essentially be boiled down into that old, familiar cliche of "trying to do too much" instead of just playing the game he has played for the past few seasons and being comfortable with whatever returns that brings him financially. The psychology of turning down a lot of money and, in essence, "going for it" in a FA year can't really be measured. It doesn't bother me that he swings at first pitches, it bothers me that he doesn't seem to have an approach based on: 1) a specific pitcher's first pitch tendencies and 2) the knowledge that the league knows you, Ian, so you need to adjust back to their adjustment (of feeding you first pitch crap, usually).

It's hard to make good contact with first pitch crap....

Anonymous said...

Not to beat the dead horse, but that turner deal is looking better every day. And with the way Desi is playing, I could actually see him going for a short term, high $/year kind of contract in hopes he turns it around. I could see a number of teams being more open to that than what he would've gotten from the nats previously

Anonymous said...

Don't post too much negative Harper the Cardinals could be hacking you and making decisions based on this post.

Robot said...

"Don't post too much negative Harper the Cardinals could be hacking you and making decisions based on this post."

Hey-oh! Sick burn!!!!

Gr8day4Bsbll said...

Too often lately (and certainly almost always over the last 3 games, with a golden sombrero on Saturday) I've watched Desi not swing at first pitch crap, but instead take two fastballs right down the pipe, to get to 0-2. And THEN he swings at third pitch crap, usually breaking ball low and away. I agree otherwise with WiredHK: Desi isn't making any adjustments now that the league has adjusted to him, but I'd go a little further -- it seems like Desi doesn't have ANY approach at the plate these days, he's just guessing on every pitch. He reminds me of every ballplayer who's ever been in a slump at any level; you can see the lack of confidence on his face the minute he steps in the box, and at the ML level, once the pitcher sees that you're done...

Bjd1207 said...

Anybody catch Ray Knight's breakdown of his mechanics in the pre-game yesterday? Was actually pretty good. And I can't tell if now I'm just fitting the facts to the conclusion already drawn, but it supports the "similar contact rate, bad contact quality" theme that Harper drew out of the numbers.

Basically he said his mechanics are a disaster through and through. Starts with taking way too long of a stride, on the order of 6+ inches too far (he said where normally guys stride 7 inches or so, Desi's stride is 12"-15"). So that brings his hands much farther forward before he starts his swing, making it almost impossible to reach fastballs (much less sliders) on the outer half. Those are those increasing and increasingly frustrating K's that we see. In addition, his off-balance base means he finishes the swing with an upward stroke with the bat barely staying in the zone at all. This could be part of the weaker contact that we see on the inner half. Where previously he would catch these inside pitches just a bit out front and launch them into the left-field bleachers (which we have seen a couple times this year) he's now rolling over his outstretched front foot, resulting in much weaker contact on the inside pitches. So inability to reach the outer half, coupled with off-balance weak contact on the inner half.

And then on top of all of that as we've been talking about forever is his complete lack of adjustment whatsoever to the pitcher, game situation, etc. When his mechanics are on-point he can be the free-swinging, 20HR, .250 hitter that we saw for the past 3 years. When his mechanics are this far off, he doesn't have a good approach to fall back on.

I like learning about the mechanics from guys like Ray Knight, even while I usually poo-poo his knowledge of the stats side of things. I think its a big gap in my knowledge so I really liked his segment yesterday

SM said...

It's quiet out there, Harper. Too quiet. Must be another one of those government holidays no one else gets.

Reading this year's blogs, I sometimes think poor Desmond is merely the poster boy--the shining symbol--of what ails the Nats' offensive woes.

This is largely a veteran squad that doesn't walk--one player has over 25% of the team's BBs--strikes out a lot, is injury prone, and is extraordinarily impatient. (Of the 80 or so pitches-per-plate-appearance qualifiers--200 ABs--5 of the bottom 21 are Nats.) There's only one left-handed power hitter (same guy with 25% of the walks) in a league increasingly emphasizing platoon advantages (related to the composition of the bench). And though it isn't critical, the Nats' running game is terrible, too.

The worrying part is that on a team of very streaky hitters, the offense seems to collapse collectively and revive collectively in about equal measure. (They need to pitch a revival tent and play with snakes or speak in tongues, or something.)

I wonder if the front office suspected they were stuck with an iffy offense, and the best chance of winning was to assemble an unassailable starting staff with Big Max leading the charge. But then, aside from Max, that hasn't worked out so far, either.

There are myriad ways to vivisect Desmond's performance. And you've provided a number of reasonable ones. But the larger issue is the Nats' floating around .500. And for that, Desmonbd is hardly the only culprit.

WiredHK said...

Good point, Gr8day - I should have added that now, he looks so lost that he seems to actually NOT swing at the first pitch fastballs right down the middle (like he is a step slow in his adjustment, looking for slop on pitch one). I think this may be a symptom of my noted suspicion that he doesn't actually study pitcher-specific tendencies and/or understand who is more likely to have control issues. He just goes up either decidedly hackin' early or decidedly not hackin' early, and lately it always seems to be the wrong move, every time.

I'm not sure why his approach to pitch one right now can't simply be, "if it's in this area (ahem, FB down the middle), I'm hackin' hard; if not (offspeed anything), I'm takin' (even if that might mean falling behind should this guy throw a deuce for a strike)."

JE34 said...

@SM - I think you're right on. (Bonus points for the use of "vivisect.") Desmond is the most glaring issue among many. He is infuriating to watch, but I feel for him... he's gotta be thinking every bad game is costing him millions in FA money.

Harper - do the fancy stats agree that the Nats are extraordinarily impatient hitters as a group? Are they at/near league worst when subtracting Bryce?

Ryan Zellman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ryan said...

Desmond looks just as bad as before his breakout, but slightly more power and getting on base even less. I was slightly worried about losing him before the year started but with the way this year is going, it looks good that he will leave. I just hope that he can pick it up a bit, because without his bat, I'm not sure how they will score enough runs with the injuries to Werth and Zimmerman.

How bad have the Nats not named Harper and Scherzer been this year?

SM said...

You know, JE34, I feel for Desmond, too. He looks lost out there. Not overmatched, just lost. And that suggests he'll come around, not necessarily with a bang, but gradually.

One of the disconcerting things about following the Nats is living about 3 blocks away from Toronto's stadium and watching the Blue Jays bomb their way into contention. Their bullpen's a mess, the front of their rotation throw eephus pitches--and yet there they are. The free agent signing of Russell Martin, the Josh Donaldson trade and a shrewd waiver pick-up of Chris Colabello have gone a long way in disguising the team's pitching weaknesses.

Maybe it's not necessarily the ideal way to win, but man, oh, man, how I envy that offensive firepower.

Nattydread said...

Perhaps things are not so bad after all compared to last year on offense. Espinosa and Desmond have essentially switched positions --- with Espy being an upgrade cost-wise and defensively. Werth's decline has been interrupted by injury so MAT is getting an early trial. Downgrade. Zimmerman, injured, is a major downgrade over LaRoche. Rendon, Span, Escobar and Ramos should be as good as what we fielded last year. Add in super-breakout MVP Harper and you have an offense that, with improving health, should perform. It is the bullpen that worries me.

Anonymous said...

I would honestly rather have Tyler Moore playing SS than Desmond right now

Wally said...

Desi is having a bad year but he is the farthest thing from the main problem here. I'd put Zim as a much bigger offensive issue, and there is a real danger that he is going to be the gift that keeps on giving. But This was always supposed to be a pitching first team, and the pitching has really underperformed expectations so far, and is the main culprit for our place in the standings.

We bash Desi, and that's the nature of the business. But while we all want to easily slide Turner up here, or Difo, or project 33 yr old Escobar or two month Danny at SS next year, I predict we are going to miss the player that Desi has been for the last several years. Rizzo played this one correctly and we don't know who Desi will be next year, and he never profiled as a guy to give a 5-6 year deal in his 30's, (but I think he'll get paid well next year, at least Peralta money). But let's acknowledge that Desi has (a) always been a standup guy when many of his teammates would hide in the trainers room, (b) gave us several great years of overall production at SS, and (c) as the epitome of a streaky player, when he was on (offensively and defensively) he looked as good as he looks bad right now. No doubt Nat Hall of Famer for me, and a guy that I really hope for his sake hasn't started a fatal slide, but finds his bounce back and has a good second half of his career somewhere.

So say good night to the bad guy. Last time you gonna see a bad guy like this, let me tell you!

WiredHK said...

Wally - one thing I would say is, I doubt many on here dislike Desmond on a personal level, or even on a ballplayer level. As you said, he is a total stand-up guy and seems like a great locker room presence person. His achievements in a Nats uniform are certainly very, very strong and he did it all with class. However, this particular thread was an analysis and discussion of what is wrong this year and, perhaps, why things are going so bad for him. The reason for this is because it looks like more than a couple weeks of a slump, which everyone goes through. This looks like an extended set of problem issues hitting and even fielding a baseball (early on, esp).

I think on a fan site/blog, it's an interesting thing to discuss those issues. I also dislike the idea that "he is the farthest thing from the main problem here." When you lose Werth and Rendon for significant portions of the season, when Zim, Stras and Fister all miss time and appear hurt when they do play, you NEED offensive production from every day, quality veterans that are not hurt. There's nothing we can do about injuries, but Desi has been playing and has been awful, when we needed him (badly) to be good. His lack of production is 100% hurting the team and that makes it fair game for analysis and discussion.

Yes, other things are hurting the team, but Desi is one of those things. Did you watch his AB against the position player the Rays threw last night in the late innings? Even in that AB he totally looked uncomfortable (wound up with a check swing, weird "oops" roller of an IF hit while his teammates were literally swinging for the fences and padding stats). This suggests to me the issue is more between his ears than anything else....