On Ian Desmond’s Defense & Walk Year

Ian Desmond turns 30 this coming September. “Hey, let me run out and get him a funny card about how he’s over the hill!” you might say, not realizing that’s actually not funny for baseball players. This is noteworthy because Desmond is in the last year of a contract with the Washington Nationals, and is a player who provides power at a position that has very little. That’s likely the main reason he reportedly turned down a seven-year, $107 million contract extension from the Nationals in the offseason before 2014, a piece of news that was only fully revealed this past November. I’m ashamed to say it slipped under my radar of analysis, dear readers, and I’m out to remedy that today.

It’s fair to say that Ian Desmond is an important part of this Nationals team. He is a rarity: a middle infielder who can bat fifth or sixth and provide the gawking sort of power normally reserved for positions played by large, slow men. According to Baseball Heat Maps, his average fly ball and home run distance of 297.5 feet was good for 24th-best in baseball in 2014, sandwiched between Pedro Alvarez and Devin Mesoraco. That mark is also a few ticks better than Troy Tulowitzki (295 feet), and gives us a good idea of just how much raw power he has.

All of this is background to our discussion about this past Monday, when the aforementioned shiny new Max Scherzer was on the mound for the Nationals, slicing through the Mets lineup to the tune of zero hits through five and two-thirds innings. Curtis Granderson came up with two outs in the sixth, and Scherzer went to sleep on him, issuing a walk on four pitches. Maybe Scherzer didn’t want any part of Granderson. Maybe he just needed a break after striking out Bartolo Colon. It happens. Then this happened, on the first pitch to the next hitter, David Wright:


That’s a routine fly ball into shallow right field, and it’s obviously Dan Uggla’s responsibility. Strangely, Desmond decided to make it his responsibility, answering Uggla’s cries of “I got it” with “Not if I have anything to do with it”. Maybe he thought Uggla had lost the ball in the sun and needed help. Maybe it was just routine poor communication.

It’s a little freakish to see a shortstop trying to make a play in right field, and it was the first game of the season, so people could be forgiven for chalking it up to a weird, singular occurrence. Lucas Duda broke up the Scherzer no-hitter in the next at-bat, driving in two runs that proved to be the difference in the game.

The next inning, Juan Lagares stepped to the plate with one out and none on, and hit a sharp ground ball to shortstop:


Lagares is fast, but given how hard the ball was hit, there was plenty of time to make the throw — Desmond just rushed, buried it, and Ryan Zimmerman couldn’t make the pick. Travis d’Arnaud tripled in Lagares in the next at-bat, cementing the final score of the game, 3-1.

Desmond didn’t single-handedly lose the Nationals’ opener. It’s difficult for one player to do that in the game of baseball. What he did do is contribute two mistakes at vital moments of the game, and those turned out to be very important in the context of the events that followed.

Quite simply, that seems to happen to Desmond sometimes with the types of mistakes he makes. To dig deeper, let’s look at how the defensive aspect of Desmond’s game has evolved, and what that might mean for his impending free agency. Taking into account his offensive production, Desmond is walking a finer line than many realize, and this will prove to be a very important season for him.

First, we’ll address the latter occurrence in the opening game: throwing errors. Errors are not the best statistic we have, I know. We’ll get to advanced metrics in a moment, but for now, throwing errors do highlight a glaring issue with Desmond’s defensive game. Desmond had a below-average first baseman on defense for the past two years in Adam LaRoche, but he was actually in the top 1o in the league at scooping throws in 2013-14. With that in mind, we can consider the fact that it could have been worse for Desmond, even though he led all shortstops in both overall errors and throwing errors during the past two years:


Take errors for what they’re worth (which is at least something), and the fact that throwing errors are less subjective than fielding errors, and you get the picture: Desmond has had serious issues throwing the ball the past couple of years. Fortunately, his defense is composed of more than just his arm. The main way he makes up for those errant throws: above-average range.

Here are the qualifying shortstops for the past two years, and their runs above or below average due to range:


Oh hey, Andrelton Simmons. Desmond finds himself on the positive side, in a third tier of sorts with Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Crawford. Those guys aren’t wizards, but they are at least plus defenders on a good day. The point is this: range is the main reason why Desmond is in the vicinity of an average defensive shortstop. He gets some added defensive value based on a few small factors like runs added due to double plays turned, but range is the main driver here.

Considering his UZR/150 for the past two years (2.3) needs to be regressed heavily (leaving it very close to league average), and his DRS over the past two years was -1, are we still comfortable with calling Desmond a good defensive shortstop, as he is considered by some?

As Neil highlighted in March, his offensive game is not without its holes either, and those are becoming more pronounced as time goes on. Last year, his strikeout rate jumped 6% to 28.2%, along with his overall contact rate continuing its steady decline. Since he walks at just under a league average pace, he’s become an all-or-nothing hitter who fortunately also contributes on the base paths.

Did Desmond make a mistake not taking the $15+ million/year when it was offered? Perhaps. Along with a lot of other high strikeout players, Desmond thrives on the flashy productivity of the contact that he does make, and counts on other parts of his game to make up for his lack of on base and contact skills. Unfortunately, the parts of the game Desmond relies on for his value — defensive range, power, and base running — don’t age well.

That’s an inherently dangerous game, and it leaves you an unlucky or bad year away from looking terrible. Desmond’s contact numbers have been trending in the wrong direction for three years now, and it seems like if something gives, it might turn ugly very quickly. This is the risk he took, and it was a calculated one. A team will most likely take a long-term gamble on him, but we’ll find out soon just how rich Desmond’s thirties are going to be.

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

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While LaRoche was a below-average defensive first baseman overall, likely due to his extremely poor range, he was actually very highly thought of in DC for his ability to scoop bad throws, bailing out Desmond and Zimmerman numerous times. Is there a metric you used that shows he rates poorly at fielding bad throws?