The Continued Emergence of Ian Desmond

One of the big questions coming into 2013 was if Ian Desmond's 2012 was a career year or a breakout year. There was evidence to suggest the latter, but plenty of fear that it was the former. When Davey Johnson took over in the middle of 2011 he noticed a problem with the Nationals batting approach: Nationals hitters were too concerned with going the other way, and the hitter most affected was Ian Desmond. Trying to go the other way won't always result in a batter being able to go the other way as Desmond's batted ball data suggests that not much has changed in hit location. In 2010 Desmond had 79 at bats that ended with the ball going the opposite way, 97 in 2011, and 79 in 2012. The big difference in Desmond came in his line drive and fly ball rate.

In 2010 and 2011 Desmond had ground ball rates of 52.7% and 51.9% respectively and in 2011 he hit .265/.265/.287 on ground balls. Not much changed on ground balls in 2012 and not much can change as it is extremely difficult to get an extra base hit on a ground ball. In 2012 Desmond had a slash line of .306/.306/.389, but the big thing was Desmond's ground ball rate dropped to 47.6%. The big difference in Desmond's hitting from before Davey Johnson took over and after is Desmond stopped trying to take everything the other way. It is very difficult to gets your hands inside an inside pitch and most of the time trying to do so will lead to a weakly hit ground ball. Good hitters hit the ball where it is pitched, taking pitches away to the opposite field and pulling pitches inside. 

This is what Desmond started to do and thus he hit fewer ground balls and got more balls in the air. This is good for Desmond as he always had natural power, but he wasn't using it. In 2010 and 2011 Desmond had fly ball rates of 31.6% and 30.5%. In 2012 that rose to 34.5%, but the big and important difference is that those fly balls were for the most part no longer accidents. Desmond was trying to pull inside pitches in the air and so his HR/FB percent rose from 6.0% in 2011 to 18.2% in 2012. Desmond's raw batting line on fly balls in 2011 was a pathetic .177/.170/.346 and in 2012 an impressive .242/.241/.788. Desmond was now hitting the ball where it was pitched and when he put it in play in the air it was now with power instead of a meekly hit fly out to short center field.

The big question was would this change continue into 2013. The change in approach was known, but the numbers were still shockingly high. By fWAR Ian Desmond was the best shortstop in baseball. That is an impressive improvement for someone whose main value in 2011 came from the fact that he happened to be a shortstop and there aren't very many players in baseball that can do that at even a below average level. Through 13 games in 2013 it looks like Desmond is picking up right where he left off in 2012. His overall batting line of .320/.327/.600 is impressive, but it is also a small sample size. What is more important is that his approach has stayed the same. So far in 2013 Desmond is hitting even less ground balls with a ground ball rate of 35.9%, has seen an increase in fly ball rate to 43.6%, but so far a decrease in HR/FB% at 11.8%. Desmond is hitting more line drives so far in 2013 than he did in 2012, but it is still too early to make much of a marginal change in one category.

The big change in Ian Desmond between 2011 and 2012 was that he started to use his power more. He put more balls in the air and he did so with authority. So far in 2013 that has continued. In 2013 Desmond is batting .357/.333/1.000 on fly balls, but the important numbers are the rates, and so far in 2013 Desmond is the same hitter as he was in 2012. Whether he equals, or even exceeds, his 2012 numbers remains to be seen. 2012 was a great season and could still be a career year, even if it was the harbinger of things to come for Ian Desmond. 5.0 fWAR seasons are rare, and Desmond had one in 2012. He may never have one of those again, but early data indicates that he also may never go back to being a 1.0 fWAR short stop either. It is important to remember, in baseball, that approach is more important than results, and as long as Desmond keeps with the approach of driving the ball where it is pitched then he will continue to hit with power.  

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