The Risk of Signing Ian Desmond

A year ago today, things were looking pretty good in Ian Desmond’s world. He was 29 years old and the starting shortstop for the Washington Nationals, heavy favorites to win the National League East. A few months earlier, Desmonds completed his third straight season of at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Defensive metrics indicated he was roughly average to above average at shortstop, and in terms of overall value, he was sitting on three straight seasons of more than four wins above replacement. In matters related to his bank account, he was just one season from free agency with no other big-name shortstops and a big payday.

But now, after a disastrous year, Desmond is still unsigned and his market is unclear.

There were some signs heading into last season that Desmond was in decline. His wRC+ went from 128 to 116 to 107 from 2012 to 2014, and his strikeouts moved in the opposite direction: 20% in 2012, 22% in 2013 and way up to 28% in 2014. Noticing a decline and expecting a collapse are two different situations, however. This is the list of players who, along with Ian Desmond, produced at least four WAR in each season from 2012 to 2014: Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, Dustin Pedroia, Ben Zobrist, Adam Jones, Alex Gordon, Robinson Cano, Miguel Cabrera, and of course, Mike Trout. A year ago at this time, MLB Trade Rumors rated Desmond as the fourth-best pending free agent and mentioned a potential $200 million contract with another good season.

That good season did not happen. Desmond’s strikeouts crept up a bit further, to 29%, while he managed to record only a below average .151 isolated-slugging mark. Desmond’s decline was not the result merely of BABIP-driven bad luck, either. While his .307 BABIP represented a decline from around .330 over the previous three years, the drop was not huge. What hurt was striking out nearly 30% of the time, thus providing fewer opportunities for hits to fall in. The strikeouts combined with a loss of power resulted in a .233/.290/.384 line, good for just an 83 wRC+. Baserunning and the shortstop positional adjustment conspired to aid Desmond’s overall performance, getting him close to average on the season.

Before getting to what Desmond’s comps say he might be worth in the future, we can examine what Desmond’s comps were heading into last season. The point of this isn’t to dwell at length at how much Desmond cost himself with a poor season, but rather to provide an idea of what type of production can be expected going forward based on one poor season after multiple productive years.

To find comps for the version of Desmond that entered the 2015 season, I looked for shortstops since 1960 who had recorded a WAR figure within four wins of Desmond’s 14.5 mark from age-25 to age-28, a sum of plate appearances within 25% of his total from that period, a wRC+ within 10 points of his 107 mark, and at least 3.0 WAR in the age-28 season. Narrowing done the criteria like that produced seven names. Here is how those players performed from age-29 through age-33, providing some expectation for what Desmond’s future might have looked like heading into last season.

Ian Desmond Pre-2015 Comps: Age-29 to Age-33
Name PA wRC+ Off Def WAR
Miguel Tejada 3410 120 76.3 20.0 20.9
Bert Campaneris 3136 91 -16.2 94.4 18.6
Dave Concepcion 3057 101 8.8 46.1 16.2
Carlos Guillen 2424 120 58.4 -9.4 12.9
Michael Young 3459 106 16.4 -6.4 12.8
Rafael Furcal 1915 103 16.9 25.5 10.5
Tony Fernandez 2769 97 -17.0 15.4 9.1
AVERAGE 2881 105 20.5 26.5 14.4
AVG/YR 576 105 4.1 5.3 2.9

This is a great set of comps, and averaging nearly three wins per season into the mid-30s is an ideal place for Desmond to find himself. When considering the age, the first year is likely to be the best one; however, the members of the group above performed consistently after their age-29 seasons, averaging an even 3.0 WAR per season from age-30 to age-33. That type of production would be worth roughly $100 million over four years in present-day dollars and would not put a six-year, $150 million contract out of the question.

Re-running the comps to identify similar players after Desmond’s poor 2015 season, I looked at shortstops who, from age-25 to age-28, recorded a WAR within five wins of Desmond’s 14.5, a sum of plate appearances within 25% of Desmond’s own total from that period, and park-adjusted batting line within 10 points of Desmond’s 107 wRC+. Then I looked for the players who had posted age-29 seasons in which the wRC+ represented at least 10-point decline from their previous four-year averages. Here is that list of players, along with the wRC+ each produced in his age-29 season and the dropoff from prior years.

Ian Desmond Post-2015 Comps: Age-25 to Age-28
Name wRC+ Off Def WAR wRC+ at Age-29 wRC+ Dropoff
Jay Bell 114 41.5 56.2 18.7 95 19
Dave Concepcion 103 20.5 69.5 17.0 84 19
Bert Campaneris 98 17.5 56.1 16.1 78 20
Ron Hansen 100 -0.3 90.9 15.4 90 10
Rafael Furcal 106 53.1 8.3 15.1 82 24
Gene Alley 101 4.0 61.7 14.8 74 27
Jeff Blauser 116 34.0 0.3 10.3 77 39
AVERAGE 105 24.3 49.0 15.3 83 23
Ian Desmond 107 27.9 31.4 14.5 83 24

The list does have a few similar players. Dave Concepcion, Bert Campaneris, and Rafael Furcal are still on the list. This is a good sign given the comps above, right? Not so much. Switching out Miguel Tejada, Carlos Guillen, Michael Young, and Tony Fernandez for Jay Bell, Ron Hansen, Gene Alley, and Jeff Blauser causes problems.

Here are those players’ production from age-30 to age-33:

Ian Desmond Post-2015 Comps: Age-30 to Age-33
Name PA wRC+ Off Def WAR
Bert Campaneris 2527 94 -5.8 76.4 15.9
Jay Bell 2591 109 29.7 46.8 15.6
Dave Concepcion 2427 105 17.6 30.9 13.5
Rafael Furcal 1641 107 25.2 17.8 9.7
Jeff Blauser 1608 108 16.8 -3.9 6.1
Ron Hansen 893 88 -11.0 3.3 1.9
Gene Alley 959 75 -25.6 4.7 1.2
AVERAGE 1807 98 6.7 25.1 9.1
AVG/YR 452 98 1.7 6.3 2.3

On the whole, this is not a bad group. Even given these comps, Desmond would figure to be worth close to $80 million over the next four season. The problem for Desmond is now that there is a considerably lower floor. Among the first group above, Tony Fernandez is the worst player of the bunch, and even his four years wouldn’t represent a terrible outcome for Desmond. Every player in that group was productive and would have been worth a decent investment. Considering the second group, however, we find a significant bust rate.

Looking only at age-30, only Concepcion had 400 plate appearances and a wRC+ above 100 — and only Concepcion and Campaneris produced above-average seasons. Of the players in the second group from age-30 to age-33, two players provided almost no production, a third was below average, and the only clear wins came from players who were above-average to excellent on defense, something one can’t expect from Desmond.

Steamer projects Desmond to repeat last year, with an 87 wRC+ and a 1.7 WAR, placing his value in a long-term deal at about half of the average of his comps above. Given his difficult 2015, that is not an unreasonable projection. While, overall, players like Desmond might eventually provide solid value over a period years, the risk-rate is going to prevent any team from making a major investment in him. That risk provides Desmond with a difficult situation, not unlike one faced by players heading to arbitration, but offered a large guarantee by their current team. He could bet on himself, and try to come back next year in what is perceived to be a weak free-agent class. However, given the risk of uncertain future performance, Desmond might still be better off taking the biggest overall package possible — even if it is only half of the average worth above — and to make sure he capitalizes on what could be his only opportunity at a major payday.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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8 years ago

Watched Desmond in DC for 7 years, and I echo everything in here: very very risky investment. Even during his high moments (especially 2012-13), his swing was so long and aggressive that you had a sense it would be short-lived. Particularly problematic because he never learned the strike zone, and now that the hands have slowed down a hair, the high heat is very hard for him to look at.

8 years ago
Reply to  JYarsh381

+1, and I’d also add that all his potential upside is offensive. If you look at the comps above, the guys that aged well got a lot of value from their defense. I’m shocked to see that Desmond has as much pre-age 30 defensive value as he does. Personally, despite all the errors last year, I think his defense is passable rather than terrible. However, you’d be out of your mind to think the guy is going to get appreciably better on defense.