September 6, 2011; Washington DC, USA; Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond (6) misplays a ground ball in the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE

The Enigma That Is Ian Desmond

March 5, 2005, about 3:30 in the afternoon, the brand new Washington Nationals are trailing the Baltimore Orioles 5-4 in the 9th inning of a meaningless Spring Training game. Meaningless, that is, to all except a smiling Peter Angelos and his nervous minion, General Manager Mike Flanagan, and long-time Washington baseball fans hoping to deal a small blow to the ego of the man who they feel kept them, for too many years, from having a team to call their own.

Blissfully oblivious to this sub-plot, 19-year old Ian Desmond comes to the plate with the bases loaded and two out. Taking no chances with his bosses demanding victory, Baltimore Manager Lee Mazilli has his elite closer, B.J. Ryan, in, a move unheard of so early in the spring. Ryan throws a fastball. Desmond lines a bases clearing triple, immediately endearing himself to every Washington baseball fan listening on the radio (no one could watch Nats’ games on TV due to Angelos’ stonewalling in contentious negotiations with MLB that ultimately led to the creation of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network).

Thanks to Desmond, the Nationals rally for an immensely satisfying 9-6 victory.

Desmond is the hero, now impressed on Nats’ fans’ minds. His place is cemented there when impetuous Washington GM Jim Bowden, with characteristic reckless overstatement, calls Desmond “our Derek Jeter.” Expectations thus raised, Desmond proceeds to battle injuries and hitting woes and makes errors by the truckload.

He re-emerges in 2009, with a stellar and memorable major league debut. On September 10, 2009, in Washington, Desmond goes 2-4 and drives in four runs, including a monster home run to left centerfield. He ends the game, thwarting a Philadelphia Phillies’ comeback from an 8-2 deficit one run short, with an incredible throw to first to retire Ryan Howard by a step, completing a double play. His 9th inning error, however, opened the door for the rally.

In 2010-11, Desmond similarly titillates and frustrates Washington fans with glimpses of great baseball followed by doses of shaky fielding and an inability to get on base. Nevertheless, current Washington GM Mike Rizzo praises Desmond’s make-up and leadership. Both Rizzo and Manager Davey Johnson proclaim him a key part of the club and the likely leadoff batter at the start of the 2012 season. After all, he won the Nationals’ 2011 “Heart and Hustle” award.

Such is the enigma of Ian Desmond. Is he a budding star who will play a key role in the Nationals rise to playoff contention or is he an out-making error machine? Is he an anchor on the team’s fortunes who needs to be traded or to become a bench player?

Mark Zuckerman of Nats Insider summed up the topsy-turvy nature of Desmond’s 2011 season in a recent post. After a dismal beginning, he significantly reduced his errors and turned in a decent performance at the plate in the second half, especially after Davey Johnson arrived.

A half-season is a small set of data. But Desmond has played enough baseball to develop a pretty comprehensive dossier on his abilities. No matter what the advanced (and often flawed) defensive metrics say, your eyes tell you Desmond has solid range, a powerful arm, and above average speed. Evaluation of his more important abilities — power, on-base percentage, and error-making proclivities — are harder to pin down. Or are they?

Examining his minor league statistics, Desmond looks fairly similar to the player we’ve seen in Washington the past two seasons. In 638 games of minor league action, 2,662 plate appearances, in other words plenty of data, Desmond had a .259 batting average, .326 on-base percentage, and .714 OPS. In 329 major league games, Washington’s shortstop has a .262 batting average, .304 on-base percentage, and .691 OPS. The difference in these metrics is from two factors — Desmond displayed slightly better power in the minors and a much better walk rate (near 8% in the minors compared to 5.2%, well below the MLB average of 8.5%).

As for fielding, the better maintained major league infields have helped reduced Desmond’s error rate. His fielding average is nearly 20 points better in the majors.

Of course, fielding average is generally accepted as a poor measure of defensive ability. However, it’s worth noting that only two shortstops last season, Starlin Castro (29) and Elvis Andrus (25) made more errors than Desmond (23) did. Oakland’s Cliff Pennington (22) and Yuniesky Betancourt (21) came close.

Using the trendy (and I believe flawed) Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Desmond also finished near the bottom of the pack, with a -5.4. A better defensive rating in my opinion, Hal Richman’s Strat-O-Matic, gives Desmond a “2″ range rating (above average). By any measure, his defense is not in the elite category.

Given this data, it is difficult to imagine Desmond being an effective lead-off batter or anything more than a reliable fielder with good range. That might suffice defensively, but the Nationals offense needs more runners on base at the top of the line-up for its proven run producers like Michael Morse, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, and Ryan Zimmerman and its promising young hitters Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos to be effective.

Based on a lot of data, Desmond profiles more like an Omar “The Out Maker” Moreno type of lead-off hitter on the 1970′s Pittsburgh Pirate teams than even an average major league hitter. Coupled with his error-prone fielding, he seems more like a barely above replacement level player than a key piece on a winning team. On the other hand, Moreno had similar deficiencies and strengths (good range and base stealing ability) and those Pirate teams had enough other pieces around him to contend every year and win a World Series in 1979.

The Washington Nationals, even with the additions Rizzo made this year, have a long way to go to match the talent of those Pittsburgh clubs. But there’s really no other good place to put Desmond in the batting order. The 8th spot seems reserved for the Rick Ankiel/Mike CameronPTBNL platoon in centerfield and Desmond strikes out too often to be an effective #2 hitter.

Going into their most optimistic spring training since the first, lead-off seems the only place the Nationals have to put Desmond. Sadly, at this point that feels more like a surrender than a strategy.

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