Results Are Coming for an Improved Desmond

Last month, I wrote about Ian Desmond’s improved swing. For two seasons, Desmond hit ground balls at the highest rate in baseball, which is generally not the mark of a successful hitter. That is especially true in the current era of “elevate and celebrate.” Desmond was not elevating and thus rarely celebrating, even while playing most of his games in Coors Field.

Things changed this season, and for the better. Desmond had an average launch angle of 0 degrees in both 2017 and 2018, but has raised that mark to 7.8 degrees in 2019. His barrel rate has increased as a result, and he’s hitting for much more power: His .236 ISO is a career high.

When I first wrote about Desmond, the results weren’t yet there. On May 15, the day before publication, he sported a .218/.285/.411 slash line. His 64 wRC+ ranked 159th among qualified hitters, and his -0.4 WAR ranked 166th. While the underlying numbers were still encouraging at the time, Desmond was not yet seeing results.

In the time since, Desmond has hit .352/.408/.648 in 98 plate appearances. His 156 wRC+ during this stretch ranks 26th in the majors. In just a few weeks, he’s turned around his 2019 campaign, and his season slash line now stands at .274/.336/.509, good for a 102 wRC+. For a hitter who was consistently below-average for two straight seasons (69 wRC+ in 2017, 81 wRC+ in 2018), that’s very encouraging.

Perhaps Desmond’s hot stretch was ignited by an early-May platoon. From May 2 until May 20, Desmond did not start against a righty. In that timeframe, he hit .281/.410/.625 over 39 plate appearances. But Since May 21, Desmond has started 19 of the Rockies’ 26 games, 10 of which have come against a right-handed starter. The Desmond platoon might not be completely gone, but it’s certainly not as robust as it once was. Let’s take a look at his numbers against pitchers of each handedness:

Ian Desmond’s Platoon Splits in 2019
LHP 89 .317 .371 .671 7.9% 19.1% .425 150
RHP 146 .246 .315 .408 8.2% 30.8% .309 74

Yes, Desmond clearly has been a better hitter against southpaws than right-handed pitching. And, no, it’s not great that the Rockies invested $70 million over five years in a hitter who is only effective against lefties. But considering that Desmond has posted -1.5 WAR for the Rockies prior to this season, any positive value from him must be a welcome sight.

I wondered if Desmond’s numbers against right-handed pitching were deflated due to the platoon. In other words, was it possible that Desmond has been hitting better against righties in the time since he’s returned to facing them more regularly? The short answer is no. Even during Desmond’s scorching June (144 wRC+), he’s posted a paltry .278 wOBA against right-handed pitching.

Thus we can conclude that Desmond’s breakout has been facilitated by two main factors. First, he has made legitimate improvements to his batted ball profile against all pitchers. In 2018, even against righties, Desmond still posted a 62% ground-ball rate. That has dropped to 43% in 2019. Second, the Rockies have used him more effectively. Desmond doesn’t only have to start against lefties, but it does appear to be in Colorado’s best interest to play him when a left-hander is on the hill.

With this positive information, we must still consider whether this is sustainable, whether Desmond can remain this good over the course of the rest of the season. This chart does not give us the full answer, but you might see where I’m going with it.

During Desmond’s best 30-game stretch this season, he hit .337/.427/.618 with a .434 wOBA and a 155 wRC+. During Desmond’s best 30-game stretch last season, he hit .327/.403/.600 with a .423 wOBA and a 153 wRC+. Let’s look at how Desmond differed in each of those time periods:

Desmond’s Best 30-Game Stretches
Dates G PA LD% GB% FB% Hard% BABIP wOBA xwOBA Diff
5/4/19-6/11/19 30 103 18.6% 47.5% 33.9% 45.8% .473 .434 .390 .044
6/15/18-7/21/18 30 124 14.8% 61.7% 23.5% 45.7% .400 .423 .360 .063

It’s the same story. Even during Desmond’s best 30-game stretch in 2018, he was still hitting ground balls 62% of the time. This season, during his best stretch, his ground-ball rate was much lower. When checking for sustainability, that is what you want to see. So, as you’d expect, his performance in 2019 has been much more sustainable across the board. His wOBA (.359) and xwOBA (.358) are basically identical, increasing by 44 and 54 points over 2018, respectively. His xwOBA on contact (xwOBACON) has improved by 101 points.

Desmond’s results have finally caught up to the underlying improvements he’s demonstrated all season. For the Rockies, that means positive contributions from an unexpected source. Desmond may never again be an All-Star, but he again looks like a useful hitter.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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4 years ago

I saw something on twitter recently basically showing that he has made the best quality contact in the entire MLB since the beginning of May. I have been looking for it, but unable to find it. Do you happen to have it?