Ian Desmond Develops a Weakness

Ian Desmond is a success story. There isn’t another way to spin it. He spent his first two seasons as a big league regular playing below big league regular levels. He was fortunate to be young enough and on a team that wasn’t quite ready to compete, otherwise he might not have gotten another real opportunity. After two plus years at the major league level, he was sitting on 1,302 plate appearances and 2.5 WAR.

That’s a fine number for most of the world’s population, but with Nationals gearing up to become real contenders in 2012 Desmond was entering a sink or swim kind of season. He was 26, a good base runner, an average defensive player, and he only looked average at the plate if you compared him to other shortstops. Something had to change or the Nationals would have had to look elsewhere.

Obviously, something changed. Desmond’s defense got better and he started to hit for power. While he wasn’t known for Vottoian command of the strike zone, he held his own while also connecting for extra bases. His glove started to come along and over the last three years he’s at 14 WAR in 1,850 PA. A terrific success story and reason enough to pump the breaks after any down season early in a player’s career.

Desmond is about eight months away from signing a nine figure contract (or close to it) and should be a critical component of a team most of us will pick to make it to the NLCS. He’d be a darling in sabermetric circles if he walked a little more, but aside from that his game is well-rounded. Desmond is one of the best shortstops in baseball. Four years ago, he had a .289 wOBA.

After a player has such a big breakout, it doesn’t always feel right to point out a flaw in their game. Sometimes we can be overly critical, but I hope you take this as curiosity rather than deconstructive: Desmond struck out a lot last year.

Now I’d be among the first to remind you that strikeouts aren’t the end of the world, but Desmond spent four full seasons hovering between a 19.0% and 22.1% strikeout rate. In 2014, it skyrocketed to 28.2%. Even with the added strikeouts, Desmond was still a four-win player, but his jump in strikeouts does catch your eye. Was it a fluke? A sign of things to come? Can he continue to be an above average hitter with a 28% strikeout rate?

A quick glance at his plate discipline marks reveals a notable drop in contact rate to 71.9% in 2014 after his career worst mark had been 75.3%. If you make a lot less contact, strikeouts aren’t usually far behind, but the drop in contact rate came almost exclusively from pitches outside the strike zone. Desmond lost nearly 7% in his O-Contact% from 2013 to 2014 and less than 1% in his Z-Contact%.

Even more interestingly, Desmond’s swing rates in and out of the strike zone hardly wavered from his 2013 tallies. This change didn’t happen all at once, but there’s a pretty noticeable correlation between his increase in strikeouts and his increased number of swinging strikes on pitches out of the zone.

Bring his zone profile (2009-2013 and 2014) into the mix and you can see a pretty clear problem location. Desmond’s making a lot less contact when he swings at pitches up in the zone and higher.

output_BRinfn

It’s not a matter of swinging at those pitches more often (it’s actually a little less!). He’s just hitting fewer than he used to. Here are his swing profiles over the same period. Roughly speaking, his swinging strike rate on high pitches was up about five percent in 2014 compared to his career average.

output_6cJ9CW

Desmond is swinging about the same amount and making much less contact at pitches up and out of the zone. Can we figure out why this is happening?

He’s not really seeing more high pitches. As a percentage of total pitches, he’s seen about the same percentage of pitches in the top third of the zone and above from 2009-2013 and in 2014. If pitches aren’t throwing a different number of high pitches to Desmond, might they be throwing them at different times? Or how about different types?

Starting with pitch type data from Baseball-Savant using zones 1, 2, 3, 11, and 12 (11 and 12 extend slightly lower than 1, 2, and 3) we get this breakdown by pitch type.

“High” Pitch Type 2009-2013 2014
FF/FA 43.6% 46.9%
FT/SI 23.5% 22.5%
FC 6.4% 6.0%
CH/FS/FO 6.5% 5.5%
CU/KC 5.9% 8.0%
SL 13.3% 11.1%
KN 0.8% 0.0%

You can see that pitchers went with additional fastballs and curves at the expense of the slider, cutter, and changeup up in the zone. There might be something here, but I’m not sure this isn’t just normal variation from year to year. It certainly doesn’t look like pitchers have figured out a Desmond weakness and found a way to exploit it, especially when you factor in measurement error.

So let’s try this by count. Same years, same locations.

“High” Count 2009-2013 2014
0–0 28.9% 26.2%
0–1 13.3% 11.7%
0–2 7.6% 8.3%
1–0 9.9% 8.2%
1–1 9.4% 10.5%
1–2 9.2% 9.7%
2–0 3.0% 3.5%
2–1 4.4% 5.7%
3–0 1.0% 1.1%
2–2 7.3% 7.8%
3–1 1.6% 1.8%
3–2 4.2% 5.5%

Nothing, really. Some fluctuation but nothing to clearly distinguish a pattern. The same number of pitches, in roughly the same counts, and only a slightly different mix. That’s not a very satisfying result. A slightly higher number of elevated pitches were from lefties, but the difference isn’t substantial. What does it means that we can’t find some explanation for why Desmond swung and missed so much more often against high pitches in 2014?

Unfortunately, this is probably an Occam’s razor situation with the most obvious explanation being the right one: Desmond’s getting worse. If pitchers were getting him to chase because they were throwing high pitches at different times or more often or something, it would mean they had made an adjustment that Desmond could respond to. Instead, the null hypothesis wins out for now and we’re left to assume Desmond is becoming vulnerable in this location.

Now there are plenty of good players who have holes in their swing and a good defensive shortstop with power who runs well can add value while striking out 25+% of the time. This isn’t a story about Desmond being a flawed player, but I do think it’s a reason to think he might be turning the corner toward decline. Maybe he’ll have another great year in 2015 and turning down a $100 million extension will work out well, but if the power starts to vanish his offense could bottom out quickly.

There are always factors in play that we can’t observe and any number of other explanations could be at work here, but in the absence of any evidence to suggest pitchers are attacking him differently, we’re left to assume the flaw is Desmond’s to own. The Nationals are certainly hoping it remains a blemish and not a limitation for the next seven months.





Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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Ray
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Ray

It might not be the quantity of his swings but their quality. Any evidence that his swing has changed?

Benjamin Denissen
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Benjamin Denissen

As a Nats fan that’s watched pretty closely over the last few years, there hasn’t been any significant change in swing mechanics. He’s got a very violent, all-in swing which is the source of most of his power, his plane is pretty flat and he’s pretty heavy on his front foot.

The next numbers that would interest me would be the batted ball profiles of those high pitches. Given what I’ve watched over the last few years in conjunction with this data, I’d say the author’s right and that Desmond’s swing might be getting just a little slower, which means he can’t catch up with that high heat. As mentioned, this is a fixable (or tolerable) problem for guys with good pitch recognition, just know that you need to lay off some of the high ones a bit more. What concerns me is that Desmond has shown a poor capacity for pitch recognition, or to meaningfully change his approach to adapt. That offensive bottoming out may very well become a reality

david
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david

I think you are spot on Pat. I watch about 140 games a year (yes, sad, I know) and Desmond strikes me as an athlete player. He doesn’t appear to have any clue what the pitcher is attempting to do to him nor a specific plan at the plate (see also, Espinosa circa 2012-2014). He WAS an athlete with fast hands. Now, he is an athlete with slightly less fast hands and guess what, not so easy to hit anymore. Happens to all of them and the good ones adjust. Additionally, his d has cost that at least 5 games directly (one run losses where his error directly accounted for the losing run). Granted maybe Espy drops 1 of those 5 but the net is still positive. He is a gamer but this the majors and you have to make plays, and he simply is not making them…