When the Rockies signed Ian Desmond to a five-year, $70 million deal in December of 2016, they did so with the intention that he’d be their first baseman for the foreseeable future.
At the introductory press conference, general manager Jeff Bridich expressed his excitement to bring the two-time All-Star aboard.
“A couple of years ago, we started talking about versatility and athleticism becoming a priority for this organization, along with getting veterans of character,” Bridich had said at the time, per Thomas Harding of MLB.com. “[Desmond] represents all of that, and that is the exciting thing.”
Unfortunately, in Desmond’s first two seasons with Colorado, the results weren’t there. In 2017, Desmond hit .274/.326/.375 and a 69 wRC+ across 373 plate appearances. Despite being signed for the purpose of playing first, Desmond spent the majority of his inaugural season with the Rockies in left field, where he struggled to post positive results (-4.7 UZR in 557.1 innings). All in all, he was worth -0.8 WAR.
The following season told a similar story. Over 619 plate appearances, the slash line (with a particular emphasis on power) was slightly improved at .236/.307/.422 and a 81 wRC+, but officially sliding into a full-time role at first base was not helpful (-2.5 UZR in 1,158 innings). That, plus a poor positional adjustment, killed Desmond’s overall output for a second consecutive season. He put up -0.7 WAR.
Those two paragraphs represent a brief summary of Desmond’s first two seasons with the Rockies. Clearly, they haven’t been great. And, after a quick look at his 2019 numbers, it appears we are seeing more of the same. Through games on Tuesday, Desmond has had 132 trips to the plate this year, slashing .208/.273/.400 with a 62 wRC+. If anything, Desmond’s offensive production looks more substandard than it has been over the past two years. Considering the numbers we’ve seen already, to think that he could be even worse is alarming.
Desmond’s only saving grace has been his defense. A move to center field, a position where he found success during his lone year with the Rangers, has been the driving factor of this value, I’d suspect. Not only has he produced +0.3 UZR in 265.1 innings out there, but a favorable positional adjustment also works in his favor in terms of overall value. That’s how he’s been playing at near-replacement level so far this year (-0.2 WAR in 37 games).
That’s all well and good, but if Desmond wants to ever sniff being a valuable contributor again, he’s going to need his offensive numbers to rebound dramatically. And, considering that his playing time has been slipping, it’s going to need to happen fast.
“This isn’t possible,” you’re probably thinking. “Desmond is done. Why are you even writing this article?” That’s a great question, hypothetical reader. I’m writing this article because there appears to be some evidence to suggest that a Desmond turnaround of some variety is possible.
From 2017 to 2018, Desmond had the highest groundball rate of any hitter in the major leagues. As you can probably tell from the general trend in this graph, there’s a weak correlation between a batter’s groundball rate and their overall wOBA. In other words, having a high groundball rate doesn’t necessarily mean a hitter can’t be successful, but it doesn’t usually help. There are a ton of factors that go into hitting, but as we’ve seen in this current era of three true outcomes, aiming to hit line drives and fly balls generally leads to more successful results.
For Desmond in particular, groundballs were never going to work. Playing half of his games at Coors Field, he needed to focus his attack on getting the ball in the air. When he did, things worked out well. Even in his well-below-average season in 2018, Desmond still hit 22 home runs, likely aided by a sky-high 25% home run per fly ball rate. When Desmond managed to hit the ball in the air, he did so with enough power to put it over the fence. That is something that we can work with, and it might just be something that Desmond decided to work with, too.
So far in 2019, no hitter in baseball has decreased their year-over-year groundball rate by as much as Desmond. Just 40% of his batted balls have been on the ground, representing a 22 percentage point drop from his 2018 mark of 62%. In the course of one season, Desmond has dropped his groundball rate from a league-high to below league-average. To put a further exclamation point on this idea, Desmond hit nearly three groundballs for every fly ball last season; this year, his groundball to fly ball ratio is less than one.
As you’d probably expect, Desmond is hitting fewer groundballs than during any 30-game stretch in his Rockies’ tenure, and his hard-hit rate appears to be ticking up ever so slightly, too. His average launch angle, likewise, has gone up from zero degrees in each of the past two years to 11.6 degrees in 2019. Here are Desmond’s 2018 and 2019 launch angle charts, side-by-side:
I should note that the scales on these two radial charts are different, but the trend — rather than the numbers themselves — is what is important here. Desmond is clearly prioritizing a high launch angle, get-the-ball-in-the-air approach this season. But, the question remains: why haven’t the results changed?
The easiest hypothesis I have is that the batted ball luck just isn’t there. Desmond has a .329 xwOBA so far this year, 40 points above his actual wOBA of .289. Among the 236 players with at least 100 plate appearances this season, Desmond’s wOBA to xwOBA differential (wOBA-xwOBA) is the 30th-lowest in the league, putting him in the top 13 percent of unluckiest hitters in baseball.
If Desmond played to his exact xwOBA — the .329 mark as stated above — it would represent his best non-park-adjusted (important to note for a Rockies hitter) offensive output since 2016, when he had a very good season with Texas (103 wRC+, 3.5 WAR). Desmond’s xwOBA on batted balls alone (known as xwOBACON) is .417, further proof that, when he makes contact with the pitch, he’s crushing it. But, of course, no player’s stats are exactly “ideal.” Desmond is still striking out a lot (27% K rate) and isn’t walking enough (8% BB rate) to compensate. That hasn’t changed, and there isn’t a whole lot to suggest that it will.
Still, though, the batted ball results are better. As to whether Desmond will actually break out, that remains to be seen. At the moment, he’s doing the right things, and for me, that’s enough to give a glimmer of hope that a solid hitter exists somewhere in the skillset of 2019 Ian Desmond.
Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.