The Real Ian Desmond Has Stood Up

Before the start of the 2013 season there were three Nationals players who were commonly thought to be regression candidates Gio Gonzalez, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond. All three had excellent years in 2012 earning many accolades for their respective efforts, but all three had put up numbers above their career averages.

For Gonzalez and LaRoche it was easy to see that their numbers would retreat a bit. Neither demonstrated any new skills, they merely did what they always did just slightly better. Lo and behold both are still doing well in 2013, but they are not replicating the success in 2013.

In Desmond’s case things were a bit trickier. For one, the prodigious power he had shown in 2012 seemingly came outof nowhere. In his first two years in the Major Leagues Desmond hit only 18 home runs and then he hit 25 in 2012 alone. Nobody knew where this new found power stroke had come from; let alone whether it was sustainable.

By all measures Desmond had easily enjoyed his best season in the Major Leagues, taking home All-Star nod and Silver Slugger award while being worth five wins above replacement. However, with his gains coming so quickly it begged the question of exactly what he would be capable of in 2013. A few thought 2012 was a complete fluke and Desmond would revert to his career averages, while most thought that his numbers would take a small step back.

Well 88 games into 2013 I think we can say that the Ian Desmond of 2012 is the real Ian Desmond and that we can expect him to produce at around this level for years to come. His slash line in 2013, .284, .326, .506 is nearly identical to his 2012 line of .292/.335/.511. In advanced stats his wRC+ in 2012 and 2013 is almost the same at 128 and 126 respectively. In terms of the surprising power he showed last season, it isn’t so surprising anymore with 15 home runs already and an ISO of .222, even higher than his .218 ISO in 2012.

So now that we have a good idea that this is the player Ian Desmond will be, the question turns to how did he make such a startling change from his first two years in the majors? Even in the minors he showed mere flashes of power at best, with his season high being only 13 home runs in 2007 with Potomac.

Desmond has put up a similar stat line to the ones he had in 2012 and 2013 once before, in his brief call-up in 2009. In just 89 plate appearances Desmond slugged four home runs, had a .280 ISO and hit .280/.318/.561, good for a 125 wRC+. Those numbers are remarkably similar to his 2012 and 2013 numbers and if you extrapolate out those four home runs over a full season they would be around 25 home runs, the same number he hit in 2012. Now such a small sample size can easily be dismissed as just random variation and after his first two years it was, but now it is curious to look back and see such eerily similar numbers.

One thing that changed between 2010-11 and 2012-13 for the Nationals is the manager; as Jim Riggleman managed the first years and current skipper Davey Johnson the latter years. Last August, Johnson mentioned the Riggleman regime and its emphasis on hitting the ball the other way and players not hitting the ball where it was pitched. One player who this description seemed to fit was Ian Desmond and that could have been dragging down his power numbers. Looking at his swing now he puts a lot more emphasis on driving the ball than he did in his first two years and is no longer attempting to be a top of the order bat.

Another thing that has changed for Desmond is his approach. So far in 2013 16.2% of Desmond’s plate appearances have ended after the first pitch and that number was 21.2% in 2012. Compare that to 13.3% in 2011 and 14.5% in 2010 and it is clear that Desmond has taken a more aggressive approach at the plate in his more successful seasons. Considering that Desmond has batted .377/.381/.545 on the first pitch in his career, it is likely beneficial for him to do so.

Finally, there are two things that have not changed between 2010-11 and 2012-13, Desmond’s strikeout and walk rates. Both have hovered around 21% and 5.5% respectively, with little deviation from those averages. So the improved numbers have not come from the traditional places in striking out less or walking more, Desmond overall is just doing better when he puts the ball in play. This notion is supported by a rise in his average BABIP from 2010-11 to 2012-13, .317 to .331. His line drive rate and home run to fly ball ratio have also risen from 15.8% and 7.7% in 2010 to 20.8% and 16% in 2013.

So Desmond has made legitimate adjustments to his overall approach and game and is now reaping the benefits of it. In his first two seasons he likely placed too much of an emphasis on hitting the ball the other way and trying to be a top of the order hitter and his stats suffered. When he made the adjustment to a more aggressive approach where he looks for his pitch and drives it, his numbers improved along with it and he has become the player we see today.

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