Ian Desmond Has Been a Complete Success

Sunday, in what was undoubtedly one of the coolest moments of his career that no one remembers, Ian Desmond slugged a lead-changing and eventually game-winning home run. Desmond homered off of a horrible pitch, and then he flipped his bat, which is funnier now.

I’m not convinced there’s anything to learn there. Most hitters would be able to punish a hanging two-strike curveball. Desmond last year probably would’ve been able to punish a hanging two-strike curveball. That being said, Desmond only saw a hanging two-strike curveball because he’d stayed alive in the at-bat. The previous pitch:

One pitch is one pitch, no more and no less. In isolation, it’s a normal-looking foul ball, and maybe Desmond fouls off the same ball a year ago. But a year ago, and even before, Desmond struggled against high fastballs. A year ago in particular, Desmond struggled against plenty of things. That’s why he wound up signing a one-year pillow contract toward the end of the offseason, but a month and a half in, now, Desmond is looking like a total success. Ian Desmond has helped the Rangers scoot back into first place.

At one point there could’ve been a very different article. It would’ve been hasty, but through a dozen games, Desmond was batting .109. To make matters worse, all of his hits were singles, and he had four times as many strikeouts as walks. That early, Desmond looked like one of the worst players in the game, and one might’ve taken that opportunity to make fun of the Rangers for their optimism, but of course Desmond has turned it around, and then some. Over a streak starting April 19, Desmond has slugged .628. He’s also put up a bunch of other numbers, but the slugging tells you plenty by itself.

Behind the scenes, Desmond has been a project. He’s a hard worker, and the Rangers have had him hard at work trying to correct various perceived weaknesses. There’s always been a violence in Desmond’s swing, and when he loses control of it, he loses control of his strike zone. That’s not all that uncommon, but the Desmond of 2016 has been in more control than before. There are a few ways to try to show this. Here’s one! Last year, in two-strike counts, Desmond made contact with 65% of his swings. The year before, 68%. This year, 77%. Desmond has made himself harder to put away, which is reflected by his dramatically reduced rate of strikeouts. Think about that two-strike fastball above.

Desmond in general is hitting with more control. You see this also in his smaller chase rate. There are 182 qualified hitters this year who also batted at least 100 times last year. Desmond has the fourth-best improvement in strikeouts, and the sixth-best improvement in chasing. Another way to visualize that last point — Desmond has played 37 games in a Rangers uniform. Here are his career swing rates over 37-game samples:

ian-desmond-swing-rates

He’s been chasing less than ever, even while he’s kept up swinging at strikes. Some time ago I wrote about Randal Grichuk trying to do this, and he showed a little success, but it was over a smaller sample, and he’s since reverted to where he was before. That might’ve happened because Grichuk slumped, and Desmond is still red hot, but he had a slump early. Desmond already had a rough stretch, before the happy stretch, yet here we are.

In general, Desmond has been harder to put away. In general, Desmond has swung at fewer would-be balls. Yet there’s been a critical area of focus. Here are Desmond’s batted-ball speeds, from Baseball Savant:

ian-desmond-exit-velocity

Desmond hasn’t made great quality contact down and away, and he also just hasn’t made consistent contact down and away. It was long a vulnerability — Desmond pulling off and swinging through distant pitches, if not rolling them over. It’s not like this is something the Rangers discovered. Everybody knew it. Tons of hitters have the same problem. But the Rangers have massaged this problem somewhat out of existence. From Baseball Savant, again, here are Desmond’s career swing rates at pitches low and away (including would-be strikes and balls):

ian-desmond-low-away-swing-rates

That’s a plunge, Desmond dropping from 37% to 23%. That doesn’t mean Desmond is going to stay at 23%, but one year ago, among right-handed hitters, Desmond ranked here in the 39th percentile. So far this year, he’s in the 96th percentile, in terms of not swinging at these pitches. Desmond’s current rate compares favorably to that of Jose Bautista. Ian Desmond had a glaring problem, and now it’s missing.

Think about the effect that has. Desmond has tightened up his zone, and he’s no longer so easy to put away in one place. You have to think the Rangers have helped him to somewhat quiet his swing, so his timing doesn’t get too far out of whack. If Desmond isn’t going to swing so much low and away, pitchers can’t work him too much low and away, because those are just balls. It forces pitchers to come up, and it forces pitchers to come into the zone more often. And Desmond’s zone rate is up! He’s never had too much of a problem hitting and producing against strikes. Desmond now looks less easy to take advantage of, and that swings the balance of power.

Amazingly, Desmond was being asked to do two hard things at once. Let me take that back — that isn’t amazing. There’s nothing amazing about requests. But at the same time as the Rangers wanted to get Desmond better at the plate, they also wanted him to learn how to play the outfield. You recall that Desmond was a career shortstop, and what is amazing is Desmond has done everything right. It’s too soon to make much of the metrics, but Desmond the outfielder has a positive UZR and a positive DRS. A better sign would be this: Desmond played regularly in left field, and now he’s playing regularly in center field, with Delino DeShields in the minors. Desmond looked to be a buy-low depth signing, and already, he’s proving to be valuable insurance behind the slumping sophomore. DeShields ran into problems and the Rangers haven’t had to miss a beat, because Desmond is an excellent athlete and a quick learner. This is how shortstop-outfield transitions should go, in theory, but they don’t always go this smoothly in practice. It’s a testament to Desmond’s open-mindedness and commitment to do as much as he can. The Rangers have had nothing but positive things to say about his defense, and he’s only been out there a matter of months.

Desmond has been a capable and versatile defensive outfielder. There was never a problem with his baserunning. His offense has rebounded in the early going, in large part because he’s been less willing than ever to go after the low-away pitch that would so consistently get him out. The power remains, and teammates have always loved him, and as I write this Desmond is just 30 years old. If he keeps this up, he’s going to be a hell of a free agent. If he keeps this up, the pillow contract will have worked out perfectly. Carlos Gomez’s loss could be Ian Desmond’s gain. He could end up profiling similarly to Yoenis Cespedes, with less strength but with more glove.

So for Desmond’s future, this has been a wonderful month. And for Desmond’s present, he’s worked himself into being the starting center fielder on a first-place ballclub. You always have to see if adjustments survive a slump, but the early Ian Desmond has worked out flawlessly. A lot like how his old Nationals teammates predicted.

We hoped you liked reading Ian Desmond Has Been a Complete Success by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Playing outfield is easy. Tell em, Hanley.