Monday, October 19, 2015

2015 Season Review: Ian Desmond

Ian Desmond is probably happy that Matt Williams took so much blame for the failure of the 2015 Nationals season because a lot more people would be blaming Desmond and his disastrous year for the short comings of the team if not for Williams. After career years in 2012 and 2013, Desmond’s 2014 was a minor step back and his 2015 was a jump back followed by a tumble down the stairs.


Desmond hit only .233 on the year, the lowest batting average of his career. Analytically, the first stat to look at when confronted with a big drop off in batting is BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play). Poor batted ball luck can torpedo an otherwise successful hitter’s results. For Desmond, sadly, BABIP is not to blame. He posted a .307 BABIP in 2015. That’s a little lower than his BABIPs from previous seasons, but that mark was right around the league average, so there must be more to Desmond’s struggles than bad luck.


Of course, you probably didn’t need me telling you that to realize Desmond’s struggles in 2015 were real, but it’s not as if he had a major drop off in ALL facets of his offensive game. He wasn’t chasing pitches outside of the zone more in 2015, “forcing the issue” as you hear a lot of commentators say when a player is stuck in a slump and trying to hack his way out of it. He actually walked more often in 2015 than any other year of his career at 7.1%. But the league average walk rate on the year was 7.7%, so while Desmond improved, it was still a below average walk rate.

As expected, Desmond swung a lot, usually at balls in the strike zone, but he whiffed at the second highest rate of his career, 13.2% of the time. That led to a strikeout rate of 28.2%, a full 6 percentage points higher than his previous career worst of 22.1%, posted in 2014. It’s possible to have a successful year while striking out at such a high rate. Kris Bryant is likely to bag Rookie of the Year honors while posting a 30.6% strikeout rate. The problem was that when Desmond did make contact, it usually wasn’t the kind of contact he was used to making. Desmond hit line drives at the lowest rate of his career, only 15.6% of the time. On top of that, Desmond also popped up to the infield at a career high rate of 11%. Infield pop ups are basically as good as strikeouts, turning into outs 99.9% of the time. Combining Desmond’s 11% infield popup rate with his nearly 30% strikeout rate, it turns out that in 40% of Desmond’s at bats this year, he was a sure out.

Now, there was a narrative that Desmond turned things around in the second half of the season. On the surface, that’s true. There is hope for next year! Desmond hit .262 in the second half of 2015 with a nearly 10% walk rate all while slugging 12 of his 20 home runs (actually the most home runs Desmond has ever hit in the second half of any MLB season). All good things to be sure and part of the reason why the Nationals didn’t totally fall apart until the tail end of the season instead of sometime in July. But, as you probably expect, that’s not the whole story. Desmond found a way to boost his strikeout rate even higher in the second half, striking out in a full 30% of his plate appearances. That .262 batting average? Propped up by an unsustainable .346 BABIP. While players certainly can get hot, Desmond’s second half of the season isn’t something to bank on keeping up.

So Desmond struggled. That’s not news. Why he struggled, though, is. Desmond used to hunt fastballs up and in. Those are the pitches he used to turn on and crush into the visitor’s bullpen at Nationals Park. Check out just how well Desmond hit fastballs up and in during the 2013 and 2014 seasons with the Nationals:



Those red areas show he pounded fastballs in the zone, especially up and in where he hit .342 on fastballs in the up-and-in corner. While Desmond might have been susceptible to off speed pitches in certain area, he hunted fastballs to rip. In 2015, though, he could barely touch fastballs up. Compare those red zones from his previous seasons to the same locations in 2015 that are now a cold blue:



It’s hard to say why Desmond struggled to turn on the fastballs he used to hammer, now hitting only .133 on fastballs up and in during 2015. It could be a mechanical problem that Desmond just couldn’t fix in season. It could be part of the aging process as Desmond’s swing loses a tick through the zone. Those are two very different alternatives and it makes a huge difference in trying to determine Desmond’s abilities going forward.

Desmond’s struggles at the plate also followed him into the field. He notched 27 errors on the year, the most since his first full season as the Nationals shortstop in 2009. The advanced metrics don’t quite agree on the quality of Desmond’s 2015 season on defense, though. By UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), Desmond scored well below average with a score of -3.7 that was 16th out of all the everyday shortstops in baseball, and Desmond’s lowest score since 2011. DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) wasn’t so down on Desmond, however, crediting him with 1 run saved on the year. That was good for his second highest rating and only the second time in his career he scored in the positive by this measurement. That ranked Desmond as the 9th best defender among his shortstop peers. The leaders by DRS, though, were miles ahead of Desmond with Andrelton Simmons of the Braves posting an otherworldly 25 runs saved and the Giants’ Brandon Crawford and Diamondbacks Nick Ahmed tailing behind with 20 runs saved.

Inside Edge’s defensive ratings help to clear up what appears to be a discrepancy in the defensive stats. Inside Edge categorizes every ball hit to a player into one of five types based on the likelihood of that play being made. Routine plays, those converted 90-100% of the time, were, in fact, routine for Desmond as he converted 95% of these balls into outs on the year. Those balls classified as “even,” “unlikely,” or “remote” were balls that Desmond was average or above average at handling. It was the balls classified as “likely” that gave Desmond fits in 2015. Desmond converted only 58% of these balls into outs, below the bottom cut off rate of 60% for this category. What these stats say line up with the eye test. Desmond can handle easy plays and is a great athlete who can get to a lot of balls he probably shouldn’t be able to get to. But, when Desmond has to move to get to a ball but does so well enough that he has time to think about the play, he struggles.

Add all that up and Desmond must have been a pretty poor shortstop in 2015, right? Not exactly. Even with the horrible offense and the subpar defense Desmond was the 9th best shortstop by FanGraphs WAR. His 1.7 WAR in 2015 means he was basically a replacement level big league shortstop, not stellar to be sure but surprisingly valuable. By this FanGraphs' WAR, he was a better shortstop than a lot of the shortstops starting for playoff squads: Jimmy Rollins of the Dodgers (although he has since been replaced by rookie Corey Seager come playoff time), Starlin Castro of the Cubs (relegated to second base in favor of Addisson Russell), Alcides Escobar of the Royals and Elvis Andrus of the Rangers. The shortstop position is hard to fill these days and Desmond, even with all his faults, is still better than most.

For that reason, Desmond will get and turn down a Qualifying Offer from the Nationals. The Nationals still have a chance to resign the fan favorite Desmond, but between Yunel Escobar, Danny Espinosa, and Trea Turner it appears the Nationals have enough internal replacement options available that they will be fine with letting Desmond walk. While the multi-year deal Desmond eventually gets likely won’t match the offer he got from the Nationals last offseason, he is going to get a multi-year contract worth a lot of money. The Nationals will wave goodbye to one of their most popular players and happily pocket the draft pick they receive from the team that does sign Desmond to that contract.

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