The Smoothest Part of Ian Desmond’s Outfield Transition

Ian Desmond has, unequivocally, been a complete success for the Texas Rangers this year. He’s hitting, with a 128 wRC+, but he’s hit like that before. He’s running the bases well, but he’s run the bases well before. The third thing Desmond’s doing, though, is something he’d never done before. When he takes his position defensively, he goes to the grass instead of the dirt.

And by all indications, he’s doing a fine job of adjusting. Position switches are always interesting in theory. Sometimes, they’re less interesting in practice. One always wants to believe that an elite athlete, particularly one coming from shortstop like in Desmond’s case, has what it takes to make the transition, but we never know until we see it.

Of course, it’s too early to put too much stock into the defensive metrics, but for what it’s worth, Defensive Runs Saved considers Desmond a solid plus, Ultimate Zone Rating considers Desmond a solid plus, and Fielding Runs Above Average considers Desmond a plus. It’s nice to see uniformity among the metrics. Beyond the metrics, we’ve got quotes that suggest all parties are content. Desmond himself admitted playing shortstop was a challenge that never came easy to him, but that center field is already starting to feel more like home. Manager Jeff Banister said the transition “has been as smooth as we could expect.” And then there’s the fact that the Rangers so quickly felt comfortable letting Desmond play center field at all, that says something to the organization’s internal valuation of his ability as an outfielder.

At this point, there’s no reason to believe Desmond can’t at least stick in the outfield, and there’s even evidence to suggest he could be a plus center fielder, though perhaps that’s jumping the gun a bit. Regardless, Desmond’s got a new home, and of all the great things he’s done this season, playing the outfield is the only one we’ve never seen before, which immediately heightens the interest. Further heightening that interest is this one area of playing the outfield where Desmond’s truly shone, where he’s separated himself from the pack, that perhaps helps explain part of the reason why his transition has gone so smooth.

When we think of an outfielder with an arm that acts as a weapon, we often think of how that arm generates outs. We think of the throw home that stops the sacrifice fly, or we think of the right fielder who guns the runner going first-to-third on a line. Less often, we think of the throws that don’t need to be made. The extra bases that don’t get taken. Desmond hasn’t forgotten, and neither have the base-runners with the opportunity to test him.

Baseball Info Solutions tracks throwing opportunities for outfielders — hits and flyouts with runners on base — and base-runner advancement rate, presenting the information in a percentage of how often an outfielder “holds” a runner. Just as gunning a base-runner down has its value, so does preventing one from taking an extra base. And Desmond’s prevented those extra bases with the best of them.

In left field, Desmond was the very best. In 19 throwing opportunities, runners advanced on Desmond just three times. The league average advancement rate against left fielders has been 38% this year. For Desmond, it was 16%, and no one’s been better. He’s since shifted to center field, but runners haven’t changed their mind on testing Desmond. In center field, the average advancement rate is higher — 55% — but for Desmond, it’s been 47%, placing him just outside the top five.

I find this information to be telling, because in a way it can serve as a measure of respect from inside the game. The same way we can see a glimpse of a hitter’s reputation within the league by looking at how often pitchers throw them fastballs and in-zone pitches, we can gain a glimpse of a base-runners perception of an outfielder’s arm by how often that arm gets tested. Desmond’s arm’s rarely been tested. Evidently, it didn’t take long for it to garner respect.

Which isn’t particularly surprising, for whatever struggles Desmond endured at shortstop, the arm strength was never in question. At least, not according to the people who watched him most. From 2010-15, spanning Desmond’s time as a shortstop, the results of Tom Tango’s Fans Scouting Report crowdsourcing project graded Desmond’s arm as the second-strongest among shortstops, trailing only Troy Tulowitzki. The arm strength was never in question.

It still isn’t:

The raw strength on display in that clip is, of course, impressive on its own, but I always enjoy watching former infielders work in the outfield because there always seems to be something different about the way that they approach outfield ground balls, owing to their time spent charging grounders in the dirt. My favorite example of this is Juan Lagares, who came up in the Mets’ organization as a shortstop, circa 2013.

But you see it in Desmond, too, and the way he tracks ground balls in the outfield could have as much to do with his prevention of runner advancement as the reputation that precedes his arm.

It’s a subtle sort of thing, but look at the route he takes on this hit by Ian Kinsler, one of the most aggressive and efficient base-runners in the game, to help keep a single a single:

We shouldn’t expect that hit to go for a double, and honestly, most outfielders likely hold Kinsler there. But you see some of the infielder instincts come out: he’s direct and quick to the ball, he keeps it in front of him, and early in his route, he begins positioning his body square with the bag to keep himself in a strong throwing stance. It’s easy to imagine a more heavy-footed left fielder taking a straighter path to the ball and needing a pivot step or two in order to get himself in position to throw.

Whether it has more to do with Desmond’s footwork or his pure arm strength, he’s kept runners at bay like few of his peers with far more experience in the outfield. That’s how, despite a seemingly pedestrian four outfield assists with three kills, Desmond’s arm has been the second-most valuable in baseball among outfielders this year according to a mix of DRS and UZR, being credited with four runs saved. We’ve seen Desmond’s arm have value in the past. Just not in this way.

We hoped you liked reading The Smoothest Part of Ian Desmond’s Outfield Transition by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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fredfotch
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fredfotch

This is reminiscent of the transitions made by Alfonso Soriano. He went from a defensive liability in the infield to a defensive asset in the outfield.

Cidron
Member
Cidron

Or a more current Alex Gordon. Failed 3b, moved to LF, and now, a perennial all star there

tbjfan
Member
tbjfan

To a lesser extent, Ryan Braun too.