Thursday, October 30, 2014

2014 Review: Ian Desmond

Ian Desmond hit .255/.313/.430 with 24 homeruns in what some might call a disappointing 2014 season coming off a year where he hit .280/.331/.453 with 20 long balls. Digging into his peripheral stats, there was a lot of similarity to his 2013 season. His O-swing% of 34.6% and Z-swing% of 68.6% in 2014 are in line with his career averages. His BABIP is of .326 also falls smack in the middle of his career numbers. His walk rate was a career high of a whopping 7.1%, but not a huge improvement over his career rate of 5.6% prior to 2014. So how to explain this seeming drop off in production in 2014? A few key numbers point out some possible changes to Desmond’s approach and raise questions about how his 2015 might shape up.

First off, Desmond’s K% was a career high 28.2% coupled with a career low contact rate of 53.7%. The K rate is somewhat disturbing as it was a big jump from an average right around 20% pre-2014 and is certainly correlated with the drop in contact rate from a pre-2014 average of 62%. So while Desmond is not swinging at more pitches, when he swung in 2014 he was more likely to miss.
Take a look at this table of batted ball data from Fangraphs:


Most of his 2014 numbers seem to fall within the normal range for Desmond’s career. His HR/FB rate in 2014 matched his career high in 2012. His LD (Line Drive) rate spiked in 2013 (a contributing factor to his high batting average that year as line drives tend to ball for base hits more often than groundballs or fly balls), but 2014 was right back in line. The number that really jumps out is IFFB (infield fly ball). Infield fly balls are as good as strikeouts in the majors, and Desmond upped his rate nearly 4 percentage points in these kind of free outs in 2014. This looks like a blip to me; one year’s worth of data in this category doesn’t have a whole lot of predictive value. But this blip certainly hurt Desmond’s average. If his IFFB% reverts back to career norms, some of those balls in play should fall in for hits and bump that average back up a few points. 

I used’s great PITCHf/x tool to take a look at how Desmond was performing against certain pitch types. For his pre-2014 MLB career, Desmond hit .296 against “hard” pitches (fastball, cutter, sinker, etc) and slugged .442 for an ISO (Isolated slugging: slugging minus batting average to essentially pull out singles from the average as a better indicator of power) of .146. Against “breaking” pitches (curveball, slider, etc.), Desmond hit only .232 but slugged .383 for an ISO of .151. This isn’t all that surprising. Most players are looking fastball and hit that pitch best. Desmond is no exception, although his power doesn’t appear to be diminished by breaking balls when he does make contact. Desmond’s 2014 numbers are out of line with his career numbers, though. He hit only .272 against the hard pitches, a drop of over 20 points in batting average that nearly mirrors his drop in overall average. Surprisingly, though, his ISO jumped nearly 40 points to .184. So while Desmond tended to hit for less average against hard pitches, he made it worth it when he did connect. Against breaking pitches, both his average and ISO dropped about 20 points, seemingly in line with each other and in line with his overall batting average drop. 

Take a look at Desmond’s swing% heatmap here. No surprises really. He hacks away at pitches all over the strike zone, and some not so close to the strike zone as well. Pitches up and in have the highest swing percentages, getting up over 80%. Compare that to his AVG heatmap here. He did most of his damage over the middle of the plate and down and in. Update that for his career, and you see his hot zones focused over the middle of the plate and in. It looks like Desmond was swinging at more pitches up in the zone in 2014, but his sweetspot is really middle or even down in the zone. Swinging at pitches up in the zone is nothing new for Ian, but it looks like pitchers were able to take advantage of that more this year. 

Put it all together and what do we get? Desmond was swinging and missing more in 2014, especially on fastballs, which he usually jumps all over. He swings at a lot of pitches that he can’t do much with, although him flailing away at a slider down and away is nothing new. He could have been selling out for more power, which did lead to more pop but less contact and more strikeouts. It doesn’t look like his control (or lack thereof) of the strike zone left him as he was actually walking at a higher rate than any time before. The big question is whether his contact issues and subsequent strike out issues were a slump or a sign of things to come.

Base Running and Defense  

I’ll lump these together as there is not a whole lot to say here that you probably don’t already know. Desmond is a good base stealer, averaging over 20 stolen bases a year with career success rate of 77%. He consistently posts positive UBR and wSB scores, putting his speed to good use. Desmond’s defense has improved as he has gotten consistent playing time at SS at the MLB level. His three year DS Sscore rates him slightly below average while UZR rates him as a slightly above average shortstop. I think it’s safe to say he is an average shortstop, which is actually high praise given the challenges of the position and how few players can make that claim. No one is going to mistake Desmond for Andrelton Simmons, but he’s a notch or three above the Hanley Ramirezes of the world. 

2015 Projections

Fangraphs early 2015 Steamer projection thinks the changes we found above are here to stay and peg Desmond to put up very similar numbers in 2015. The projection has him slashing .258/.313/.416 with his walk rate dropping slightly, closer to career norms, but his strike out rate staying at a higher than normal level. I’m more bearish on Desmond than Steamer, as I think the reasons for his down year are likely to regress some next year and are not a sign of a drop off in talent. On the other hand, we have to remember that his breakout 2013 was probably a career year.

The Nationals have a big decision to make with Desmond, as his contract is up after 2015, and by all indications he is going to ask for his market value and not take much, if any, of a hometown discount. Even at his “worst” in 2014, Desmond was a top 5 offensive shortstop by almost any measure. He had the second highest WAR and ISO and had the fourth highest wRC+ at 108 while leading all shortstops in homeruns. Some may point out that this list excludes Troy Tulowitzki, inarguably the best shortstop in baseball, as he didn’t qualify for the leaderboards in 2014 after missing so much time to injury. While that is true, there is some talent to staying healthy and Desmond is a picture of consistency, never playing less than 130 games since his first full time season in 2010. Desmond is the full package of plus offensive ability, plus baserunning, and acceptable defense. All that in a shortstop is in very short supply in the majors right now. The Nationals won’t be able to go out and get all that in a free agent, and the minors aren’t offering up much either. For that reason, I think signing Desmond long term needs to be priority number one for the Nats.

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