Ian Desmond’s Failure to Launch

The Rockies have made the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time in the 26-year history of the franchise. They’ve done so despite regularly playing Ian Desmond, a two-time All-Star whose decline at the plate and shift away from shortstop has rendered him one of the majors’ least valuable players over the past couple of years, both in terms of WAR and on a dollar-for-dollar basis. If the Rockies are to continue their run of success, they need better results from the 33-year-old outfielder.

Once upon a time, Desmond was a very solid everyday shortstop. A former third-round pick by the Expos (!) out of Sarasota High School in 2004, he spent 2010-15 as the Nationals’ regular shortstop, maturing into a potent hitter with a solid glove. From 2012-2014, he averaged 4.2 WAR, hitting .275/.326/.462 (116 wRC+) with an average of 23 homers and 22 steals, and playing more or less average defense (1.9 UZR) while helping the Nationals win two NL East titles. But after spurning a reported seven-year, $107 million extension following the 2013 season in favor of a two-year, $17.5 million deal to cover the remainder of his arbitration years, he flopped miserably in 2015 (83 wRC+, 1.4 WAR), his final year before free agency. Like so many other free agents, he was adversely affected by the qualifying offer system, and settled for a one-year, $8 million deal from the Rangers that required him to learn the outfield, where he had just 7.1 innings of previous major league experience.

That move actually paid off, as Desmond spent most of 2016 in center field, made the American League All-Star team on the strength of a 15-homer first half, and despite a second-half slump, finished with 3.4 WAR and a 103 wRC+. He parlayed that into a five-year, $70 million free agent deal with the Rockies, who misunderstood his skill set and decided, despite three years of evidence that his bat was more or less league average (98 wRC+), that he would be their new first baseman. After a fractured metacarpal in his left hand cost him the first month of the 2017 season and Mark Reynolds started strongly in his stead, the team reversed course and sent Desmond to left field. He made two further trips to the IL for a right calf strain, and hit just .274/.326/.375 with seven homers, a 69 wRC+, and -0.8 WAR in 95 games. Even so, the Rockies apparently decided he was a much better option at first base than 23-year-old prospect Ryan McMahon, and while Desmond ultimately dabbled at both outfield corners, his overall performance (.236/.307/.422, 81 wRC+, -0.7 WAR) was quite dreadful, his 22 homers and 88 RBI notwithstanding.

These days, it’s rare for a player to get so much playing time while scuffling below replacement level for two years in a row. The past five seasons have included 139 instances of position players making at least 300 plate appearances and finishing with subzero WARs, but only nine did so in back-to-back years (one of them in three consecutive years):

Below Replacement Level in Consecutive Years, 2014-18
Player Yr1 Yr1 Team Yr1 PA YR1 WAR Yr2 Yr2 Team Yr2 PA Yr2 WAR
Ian Desmond 2017 Rockies 373 -0.8 2018 Rockies 619 -0.7
Billy Butler 2014 Royals 603 -0.5 2015 Athletics 601 -0.9
Victor Martinez 2017 Tigers 435 -1.0 2018 Tigers 508 -1.7
Ryan Howard 2014 Phillies 648 -0.2 2015 Phillies 503 -0.2
Albert Pujols 2017 Angels 636 -1.9 2018 Angels 498 -0.2
James Loney 2015 Rays 388 -1.1 2016 Mets 366 -0.3
Ryan Howard 2015 Phillies 503 -0.2 2016 Phillies 362 -0.9
Aaron Hill 2014 Diamondbacks 541 -0.5 2015 Diamondbacks 353 -0.1
Mike Aviles 2014 Indians 374 -0.4 2015 Indians 317 -0.9
Trevor Plouffe 2016 Twins 344 -0.1 2017 A’s/Rays 313 -1.1

I’ve ordered the players in the table according to their PA totals in the second season, which puts Desmond at the top. The Rockies simply gave him more chances to dig his way out than any of these other players — more than Howard, Martinez and Pujols, all of whom were on even bigger contracts at the end of their careers (Pujols is still owed $87 million over the next three seasons). Martinez is the only other player on this list besides Desmond who received more PA in the second year than the first, that for a 98-loss team that had no good alternative and was content to let him play out the string at the end of his career. A couple other points are also worth noting. First, Martinez and Butler are the only players from the group besides Desmond who were at least half a win below replacement in both years. And second, besides Howard’s career-ending three-peat, none of the other players even got 300 PA in a subsequent season, though both Desmond and Pujols are positioned to do so, mainly because they’re still being paid big money by teams doing a very delicate dance around their declines.

The other night, I drew the ire of a small segment of Rockies fans on Twitter with what in retrospect was an overly harsh bit of snark related to newly-extended manager Bud Black playing Desmond in 160 games last year; the skipper’s oversight of the two playoff teams and the young rotation that has helped to fuel it far outweighs playing Desmond, a decision that may not entirely be in his hands. Still, it feels like the last 10 or 40 years of baseball’s advancement of knowledge never happened when I read Black’s defense of his player on the basis of those old-school counting stats. From the Denver Post’s Patrick Saunders:

“It depends on how you look at it; what statistical markers you look at,” Black said. “You can spin anything you want. You can look at the modern-day analytics and look at it that way, or you can go old school and look at 22 homers and 88 ribbies.

“There might be some people who look at that year and say, ‘Wow, what a year!’ You can probably identify 10 to 15 players in the league who are around what Ian did, and you would probably say that guy is a pretty good player.”

Maybe Black is simply trying to put a positive spin on a tough situation, but even he has to know that .236/.307/.422 doesn’t cut it, especially from a corner bat. For what it’s worth, there were 22 NL players (and 46 across both leagues) with at least 20 homers and 80 RBI last year; the next-lowest WAR of the bunch belonged to the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp (1.6).

What’s more, the Rockies entered last year with an alternative at first base in the form of McMahon, a former second-round pick who had made three appearances on Baseball America Top 100 Prospects lists (including number 63 last year) and ranked 83rd on FanGraphs’ 2018 list. While he broke camp with the Rockies, Black couldn’t find enough playing time to keep him fresh; he started the year 0-for-13, needing 10 games to do so, and went just 9-for-50 with 10 walks in April before being sent to Triple-A, and when he returned from the minors, it was to cover for an injured DJ LeMahieu at second base. Between another extended trip to the minors and a lot of time riding pine, McMahon started just 37 games (21 at first) and hit .232/.307/.376 in 202 PA, 41 of which came as a pinch-hitter. Hardly an ideal way to break in a young player.

With LeMahieu departing in free agency and Daniel Murphy signed to play first base, Desmond is now slated to play center field, where his defensive numbers from 2016 weren’t too bad (-0.5 UZR, -6 DRS in 130 games) — better at least than incumbent Charlie Blackmon‘s last year (-12.3 UZR, -28 DRS, his fourth straight season with both metrics in the red); he’s the one who has been moved to right field. That still leaves Desmond potentially preventing the Rockies from figuring out what they have in 25-year-old Raimel Tapia, a contact-oriented speedster who has yet to hit in the sporadic chances the Rockies have given him over the past three seasons; like McMahon, he’s a former Top 100 Prospect (49th on BA’s list circa 2017, and 90th on ours) whom Eric Longenhagen recently wrote about here.

It’s no real secret why Desmond hasn’t produced with the Rockies. Coors Field is a place that rewards hitting the ball in the air, and he just doesn’t do that. In fact, his 62.3% groundball rate over the past two seasons is the majors’ highest by more than four percentage points; number two is last year’s free agent flop, Eric Hosmer. In that same two-year period, Desmond’s average launch angle of 0.0 degrees is dead last among the 228 players with at least 500 balls in play, 1.3 degrees below Hosmer. Pair that worm-killing with a subpar walk rate (7.7%) and a 23.5% strikeout rate, and you’ve got quite a millstone for the offense.

Desmond’s groundball tendency is so extreme that he confounds the Coors Field effect, the tendency of Rockies hitters to do even worse on the road than expected and thus have extremely wide home/road splits. Carlos Gonzalez is an oft-cited example, as he’s hit .328/.388/.605 (135 wRC+) in 2,566 PA at home during his Rockies career, and .252/.309/.427 (96 wRC+) in 2,503 PA on the road in that same span. As MLB.com’s Mike Petriello has shown, players who leave Coors tend to see their road performances improve once they move on, just as their home numbers return to earth.

Desmond is in a virtual tie for the lowest home wRC+ (55) of any Rockies player with at least 400 PA at Coors Field since the humidor was introduced in 2002; in his case, that’s via a .249/.314/.377 line. Meanwhile, he’s hit .252/.315/.430 (98 wRC+) on the road in his two years with the team, virtually identical to his .258/.313/.421 overall line from 2014-16, before he joined Colorado. He’s got the widest reverse split of any Rockies player in that span, and not by a little:

Humidor-Era Home/Road Splits of Rockies Hitters
Rk Name Home PA Home wRC+ Road PA Road wRC+ H/R wRC+ Dif
1 Ian Desmond 489 55 503 98 -43
2 Jonathan Herrera 533 55 576 78 -23
3 Willy Taveras 446 63 500 77 -14
4 Ian Stewart 691 81 727 92 -11
5 Cory Sullivan 492 73 552 83 -10
10 Troy Tulowitzki 2235 129 2180 118 11
15 Todd Helton 3408 136 3298 121 15
22 Nolan Arenado 1853 129 1842 108 21
24 Trevor Story 822 121 804 99 22
30 Charlie Blackmon 1933 130 1940 99 31
31 Jay Payton 433 133 442 99 34
32 Carlos Gonzalez 2566 135 2503 96 39
33 Matt Holliday 1549 157 1484 107 50
34 Corey Dickerson 442 165 483 89 76
Minimum 400 PA both at Coors Field and away, 2002-18. Rk is among 34 qualifiers; note discontinuity for select players in mid-table.

That table shows the five extremes at each end among the 34 hitters who made the 400 PA cutoff in the humidor era, and I’ve thrown in a pair of Desmond’s teammates, as well as a pair of iconic Rockies, for comparison (I left out Larry Walker, who’s 13th at +13, albeit in just two seasons and change at the tail end of his run in Colorado). Four hundred PA on either side may not be a particularly large sample size to draw from, but a 62% groundball rate at Coors Field, where the .209 xwOBA on groundballs over the past two seasons ranks as the majors’ fourth-lowest, isn’t going to produce many league-average hitters.

Desmond wasn’t that extreme a groundballer prior to his arrival in Colorado (his career mark is 52.6%), but for some reason, that tendency has become amplified. Whether the reasons are physical, mechanical, or psychological, I can’t say, but with three years remaining on his contract, he and the Rockies are going to have to find a different approach if he is to have any success at Coors, a way to elevate the ball with consistency. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he need be the next disciple of the launch angle revolution, which doesn’t sound as though it’s new hitting coach Dave Magadan’s primary area of focus anyway (he emphasized preparation, selectivity, and a situational approach in this December discussion with The Athletic’s Nick Groke). But something needs to change, because what Desmond’s been doing since coming to Colorado simply hasn’t worked.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Doesta

It should be noted that Desmond’s GB% has increased dramatically since going to the Rockies. His career GB% is 52.6%, and as you noted, in his time with the Rockies is up to 62.3%. Absolutely strange. If he could add a few degrees of launch angle, it seems he could be in for a bounce back year as all his other peripherals are not poor.