Ian Desmond’s Weakness Has Turned into a Massive Hole

Despite his below-average walk rate and high strikeout numbers, Ian Desmond’s power and speed have made up for his contact inadequacies during the past three years. He is, at once, an exciting and frustrating player to watch: a hitter prone to incredible dry spells followed by gluttonous power explosions. The Nationals have accepted his droughts — even going so far as to offer him a seven-year, $107 million dollar contract extension before the 2014 season — because the hot streaks were worth it.

Desmond has relied on that full combination of speed, low contact, and high power during the years since his breakout in 2012, and because of that, his skill set is a relatively tenuous one. We’ve seen players excel at a high level with those same type of skills, but the difference between productive and unproductive is closer when you rely on the ball going over the fence a certain number of times.

If we navigate to the batter leaderboards and sort by wRC+, Desmond has been the seventh-worst qualified offensive player in the majors this season. He’s been the very worst defensive shortstop. The nightmare scenario has come to fruition in Desmond’s walk year: a cratered home-run rate per fly ball (HR/FB), a walk rate dive, an almost total absence of speed, and really poor defense. The 2015 edition of Ian Desmond is now 2010 Desmond, except with more strikeouts and less on the base paths. Take a look:

Season G SB BB% K% ISO wRC+ WAR
2010 154 17 4.9% 19.0% .124 86 0.8
2015 84 5 4.9% 28.4% .124 61 -0.9

In March, Neil went into some of Desmond’s struggles during 2014, noting that he had a sharp downturn in contact rate on pitches up in the zone, which drove an overall drop in contact rate. This season, his overall contact rate has come back up to 2013 levels, just not in the ways Desmond wanted it to: his hard-hit rate has returned to where it was pre-breakout, with a drop of almost 6 percentage points from last season. He’s also hitting more ground balls, a career-high number of infield fly balls, and swinging at a career-high number of pitches out of the zone. We can blame that last point for his decreased walk rate.

Let’s go back to that problem with high pitches for a moment, however. Since Desmond is known mostly for his power, let’s look at where in the strike zone he’s hit for power since 2013:


Like a lot of power hitters, he’s feasted on pitches on the inner half for the past two years. In 2015, that has dried up, except for a little area down in the zone where he can drop the bat head. However, it’s the pitch up and in that’s a huge, glaring hole. The power in that entire area has completely vanished — it’s actually shocking. The question now becomes: what are the outcomes of pitches in that area, and what happened?

About 75% of the pitches he’s seen in that area this season (up and in, as well as up and middle) have been hard pitches: sinkers, cutters, four-seam and two-seam fastballs. Out of those hard pitches, he’s put just four in play to the side of the field that’s left of second base: a single, ground out, fly out, and a line out. Only the ground out and single were hit with a batted-ball velocity of greater than 90 MPH. In short, Desmond is simply not getting around on almost any high fastballs inside or over the upper-third of the middle of the plate.

Overall, he’s fouling a lot of those pitches off: almost 45% of the pitches he’s seen in that area, in fact. He’s whiffed on another 14% of them, taken called strikes on 12%, and 5% were anomalous balls. That leaves around 24% as pitches he’s put into play, and he’s hit exactly two with authority to left field when they’re fastballs.

Can we see anything different between a Desmond swing from last year on a high fastball and one from this year? Here’s a comparison:

On the left, we have Desmond homering off a Felix Hernandez fastball high in the zone in August of 2014. On the right, we have him fouling off a Shelby Miller high fastball in late June of this season. Both pitches are about the same speed — 93 mph. I’m not a swing-mechanics expert, but to me, it looks like his legs and hips are flying open and pulling his arms through the ball this season, whereas last season there was a more controlled chain of movements. As always, I welcome swing breakdowns in the comments!

Whatever the exact mechanical issues may be with Desmond, the bottom line is that he has been chronically late on high fastballs in and over the middle of the plate this year. That’s a big hole for a power hitter, and it tells us something that he’s only hit one of his home runs off fastballs this year to the left of dead-center field. Is he just slowing down? Is it a mechanical problem? Maybe it’s one of those; maybe it’s both. The bottom line is that it’s now a glaring problem.

Desmond turned down the big extension from the Nationals because he believed he could get more money as a free agent on the open market. That could still happen. With a coming free-agent class of shortstops that includes names like Alexei Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins, and Stephen Drew, a team is probably going to take a big chance on him. Whether that will look like the long-term deal he was offered to stay in Washington is anyone’s guess: as it stands, it looks like the Nationals might have dodged a bullet.

Because of his contact issues and reliance on power, there have always been questions about a potential sudden Desmond decline: what happens if his high HR/FB rate fails? What if his walk rate drops, or his strikeouts rise by even marginal amounts? What if he stops running?

Those questions could be asked of any hitter, to be fair. They’re doubly important for Desmond because there’s little leeway in his game: he relies on the full package of his skills translating to above-average production. The answers to those questions have come in the first half of this season, and quite simply, the results are not pretty. We’ve seen Desmond at his best in the past few years; we’re now seeing him at his worst. The scary thought for his next team is that those two players are closer than most might think.

Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
8 years ago

That’s not even the weakness I thought you were going to talk about. His other big weakness is his defense: by every measure Fangraphs tracks, he’s at the bottom of the qualified short stops. The worst defensive shortstop but at least he can’t hit, so he’s got that going for him. Some team may take a chance on him as a free agent, but it’s hard to imagine which one would see him as an upgrade.

8 years ago
Reply to  joser

But defense hasn’t been a weakness of his. He’s been above average defensively in each of the previous 4 seasons.