In conversing with a multitude of baseball fans over the years I have discovered that few terms are as misunderstood as ‘regression to the mean’. Many feel that regression is a deep and dangerous thing waiting to drag players down into a bottomless chasm. That isn't the case and when asked for regression candidates on last weeks show we gave a couple. Chief among them are Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche. They are the two Nats that had the best offensive seasons last year and the two that most would pick to be poised for the biggest regression, but that term shouldn't be a scary one.
Let's start by looking at Desmond today and get to LaRoche tomorrow. Our look at Desmond begins by analyzing his 2012 season. What went so right for Desmond that he went from a .253/.298/.358 batter in 2011 to a .292/.335/.511 one in 2012? The first answer is that Desmond wasn't as bad as his 2011 stat line appears. Certainly he didn't get that bad stat line by being great, but it is built primarily on a terrible couple of months. In May of 2011 Desmond hit .218/.255/.287 and in June .217/.255/.228. Those stat lines are horrendous, but in every other month of 2011 Ian Desmond was an above average offensive shortstop. He simply happened to have the two worst months of his career back to back in early 2011. His overall stat line was never able to recover even as he hit .289/.338/.417 in the second half.
The batting he displayed in the second half of 2011 is what everyone with high hopes for Ian Desmond was expecting from him and honestly the type of player he should be. In 2012 Desmond was quite awesome and most of it had to do with a sudden rise in power, but not such an unexpected one. Desmond was never a powerless slap hitter, and there are some in the organization that believe his bad performance in the first half of 2011 was from him trying to be one. Desmond's breakout in some ways coincides with the arrival of Davey Johnson who has criticized the previous regime for having an almost laughable obsession with batters going the other way. Desmond is a strong batter with good pull power and tossing that aside in order to go the other way was never the best for him.
Desmond's power was on display in full force when he got his September call-up in 2009 and hit .280/.318/.561. It was a tremendous and unexpected amount of power, and most tossed it up to a small sample size and forgot about it. Look at the stat line again for a second and compare it to Desmond's 2011 stat line and his 2012 one. It is much closer to his stat line in 2012. Somewhere along the way the player that debuted in 2009 disappeared and was replaced with a traditional slap-hitting shortstop. There are some that think in 2010 and 2011 Desmond wasn't being himself. That he was doing what he thought the organization wanted him to do and in many ways this hurt him as a player. In 2012 Desmond stopped doing that and embraced his pull power.
Even if Desmond did learn something and change as a player it is doubtful that he can repeat 2012. It was a fantastic year and his .511 SLG was tops among MLB shortstops by a wide margin. The next closest was Jose Reyes with an SLG of .433. If Desmond can somehow repeat 2012 he won't just be the best shortstop in baseball he will be the second coming of the great power hitting shortstops of the late 90s early 2000s. Desmond isn't that good, and while he is due for some regression he isn't going to fall back down to his 2011 numbers. Ian Desmond's career slash line is .271/.313/.424. Bill James projections has him bettering that at .279/.326/.445, and that looks like a reasonable expectation for Ian Desmond.
When thinking about Desmond regressing, don't think of it as him falling anywhere. He had a great season in 2012. It may end up being the best season of his career, but that doesn't mean he won't have other very good seasons. Desmond's 2013 numbers are likely to end up somewhere between his second half numbers from 2011 and his 2012 numbers. Not the best in baseball, but still very good and above average for a shortstop. There is one other possibility. It doesn't seem like a likely one, but to not address it is somewhat foolish. Desmond could also get better. 2012 could have been a breakout season and only the beginning of what Desmond is capable of. He is going into his age 27 season which should be in the plateau stage of his career. Right now is Ian Desmond's prime and there is reason enough to believe that it is possible that he not only repeat, but also improve upon 2012. It may be a tenth percentile type of deal, but not something that should be ignored as a possibility.
In all likelihood Desmond will regress, but that regression won't come at a 90-degree drop or be as scary as some make it sound. Desmond will fall a little from 2012, but not far enough where it should be any real concern. He is after all regressing to his mean and not some imaginary dark pit filled with evil dragons.