Ian Desmond has become a legitimate threat in the lineup. This may come as a big surprise to fans of sabermetrics, as Desmond’s swing-happy approach, led to him being one of the worst regulars in baseball. Last season, Desmond finished ahead of only Yuniesky Betancourt and Alex Gonzalez in WAR at the shortstop position. This year, he trails Elvis Andrus 3.8 to 3.7. If not for a recent oblique injury, Desmond would likely be the most valuable shortstop in baseball this season. While his approach hasn’t changed much, there are some signs that he’s become a better player.
The biggest change has been Desmond’s ability to hit for power. Through 385 plate appearances, Desmond already has 17 home runs. For reference, Desmond has hit just 18 home runs in his last two seasons combined. Throughout his career, Desmond has relied on pull-power for home runs. While he’s still very dependent on his ability to hit home runs to left field, Desmond has has begun to slug to all fields for the first time in his career. Coming into this season, Desmond had never hit a home run to the opposite field. He’s already hit three this year.
After two years of being a below average hitter to the opposite field, Desmond’s power surge has finally made him an average hitter to right. A similar improvement has happened in center, where Desmond has a .547 slugging percentage and a 137 wRC+ this year, both of which are career highs.
Desmond new-found ability to hit for power is definitely surprising, but his ability to do so to all fields was really unpredictable, especially after last season. Desmond only hit eight home runs last season, all of which were pulled to left. He didn’t hit any home runs to center or to the opposite field in 2011. And while half of his home runs were hit to center in 2010, he was still a slightly below-average hitter up-the-middle. Desmond needs to retain those improvements to center and to the opposite field, because there’s no way that his 47.4% HR/FB rate to left is sustainable going forward.
While power has been the driving force behind Desmond’s breakout, he’s also made significant progress against right-handed pitching.
After struggling to hit same-handed pitchers over his career, Desmond has finally emerged as an above-average option against them at the plate. And, obviously, his improvement against righties has been a contributor to his power surge. After two season of sub-par slugging numbers against righties, Desmond has managed to raise his slugging percentage to .482 against them this year.
Desmond’s breakout has been fueled completely by power. And because Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse missed significant time earlier in the season, Desmond has emerged as the team’s best hitter this year. He still has an aggressive approach, and refuses to take walks, which could be a concern going forward. If his power surge can continue in the future, it may not matter. For the first time in his career, Desmond finally looks like a strong major-league ballplayer. That’s quite a turnaround from last season.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.