Throughout the month, we will be ranking each Nationals starter and a couple of bench players and see where they rank among the National League, and then among the entirety of Major League Baseball. Earlier this week, we ranked Gio Gonzalez and Ryan Zimmerman. Today we will be continuing with shortstop Ian Desmond.
In these rankings we will be using statistics from the last two seasons to give us a bigger sample size, to see just how good Nationals players are. In this effort, we will see what part of the team needs to be fixed and which is solid compared to the rest of the league. The main goal is to win the division, so if any National League East player comes across in our findings, we will be sure to point it out. If not, the main goal is winning the National League Pennant and going to the World Series.
I will analyze standard offensive and defensive statistics, as well as advanced statistics. This will give us a full picture of who the best players are at that position. To put the players in some type of order, we will be using WAR. That gives us a baseline to start the analysis.
The top-five National League shortstops according to FanGraphs by WAR over the last two seasons are Desmond, Jimmy Rollins, Zack Cozart, Jose Reyes (who now plays in the American League) and Brandon Crawford. Now, pause for a moment and think about what that means. This is the same Ian Desmond who was drafted 10 years ago by the Montreal Expos. This is the same Ian Desmond who struggled for six seasons in the minors before finally making it to the big leagues in September of 2009. And now, five years later, he is considered to be the best shortstop in the National League. (It should also be noted that FanGraphs has him as number one overall among all major league shortstops as well.)
Clearly, Desmond has come a long way since his days in the minors, but is he really the best shortstop in the league? Looking back at his performance over the last two seasons, there is no reason to believe he isn’t.
Over that span, the 28-year-old Desmond leads all qualifying National League shortstops with 45 home runs, the closest being Rollins who has 29. Desmond has also dominated when it comes to RBIs, posting 153 over the last two years. The closest to Desmond in that category has been Starlin Castro, who lags behind with 122. The Nationals’ shortstop is also near the top with a .286 batting average, good for second place behind Reyes’ .287. Not only has Desmond excelled with the bat, but he also knows how to get around on the bases. His 42 stolen bases over the last two seasons puts him close to the top of the league, second only to Rollins who has 52.
When looking at these numbers, there’s no question that Desmond is the best shortstop in the National League. In fact, based on these numbers, there isn’t even much competition. But these numbers don’t tell the full story. There’s nothing wrong with standard statistics, but to get the full picture it’s essential to use advanced statistics such as OPS, wOBA and BABIP for offense, and UZR/150 for defense.
OPS is an excellent offensive evaluation statistic as it takes into account the key aspects of hitting: contact, patience and power. Desmond leads all qualifying National League shortstops in this category with an OPS of .812. The closest to Desmond is Reyes, who lags behind at .780. And the closest behind Desmond who still plays in the National League is Rollins at .706. This shows how productive Desmond has been for the Nationals over the last two seasons because not only has he provided power and gotten on base, but he’s also done it while being one of the most aggressive hitters in the National League.
When Desmond steps into the batters box, he has one goal in mind: to swing the bat. He usually doesn’t wait around for pitchers to walk him. If he’s up there, he’s hacking. So how is it possible that he’s still at the top in OPS, despite swinging at almost everything? Well, that’s simple… he hits the ball. Desmond makes contact with pitches thrown in the strike zone 71.4 percent of the time, first among qualifying National League shortstops.
While OPS is a great statistic for analyzing offense, wOBA is even better. Designed under the concept that ‘not all hits are created equally’, wOBA or Weighted On-Base Average combines all the different aspects of hitting and weighs each of them in proportion to their actual run value. Once again, Desmond ranks first among qualifying National League shortstops with a wOBA of .351. Desmond’s wOBA is well above the league average of .316, and the closest shortstop from our list is Reyes, who has a wOBA of .335. The next shortstop on the list who still plays in the National League is Rollins, who has a wOBA of .309. Noticing a pattern? Desmond’s high wOBA shows that not only is he getting hits, but he’s getting the hits that matter the most and, most importantly, he’s doing it consistently. wOBA is my favorite statistic for analyzing offense because it’s the only true ‘tell all’ metric that calculates every aspect of hitting. Read more about wOBA here.
Another statistic used to analyse offense is BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls In Play. BABIP is essentially a measure of luck, as it can be influenced by line drives being hit right at someone or by good defenders robbing a hit from the batter. While BABIP is not necessarily a measure of offensive success, it tends to reveal hitting trends for certain players. For example, Desmond has a BABIP of .335, once again leading all other qualifying National League shortstops. His high BABIP is probably due to the fact that he makes contact as often as he does. While his BABIP is high right now, Desmond also hits line drives just 20.3 percent of the time, indicating that his BABIP could drop substantially if his power diminishes later on in his career. While this is not really saying much, it does outline something that could be an issue for Desmond at some point in the future.
Not only has Desmond been great with the bat over the last two seasons, but he’s also been a major asset for the Nationals at shortstop, one of the most demanding positions in the game.
UZR/150 or Ultimate Zone Rating (scaled to 150 games) is a great metric for comparing players based on defense, as it calculates the number of runs a fielder saves (or gives up) in range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs and error runs combined. Over the last two seasons, Desmond has a UZR/150 of 8.8, good for fourth among qualifying National League shortstops. While he does not rank as high in this category as he does in others, a UZR/150 of 8.8 is still considered to be well above average. Desmond puts 100 percent effort into every single play he makes and he rarely disappoints at shortstop. When Desmond was working his way up the Nationals’ farm system, his defense was considered to be one of his biggest weaknesses. But, like every other part of his game, his struggles are well behind him, and he’s worked his way up to the top.
Based on his OPS, wOBA, BABIP and UZR/150, Desmond is clearly the best shortstop out of those who qualify for our ranking. However, you may have noticed that there’s one player I have eluded to so far, a player that is considered by many to be one of the best in all of baseball: Troy Tulowitzki. The reason he hasn’t come up as of yet in the ranking is because he does not have enough at bats over the last two seasons to qualify. While there’s no denying that Tulowitski is one of the best shortstops in baseball, consistency is one of the most important parts of the game — and that includes staying healthy. But since we are ranking National League shortstops, it would be wrong to leave out the three-time All-Star. So for the purpose of this article, we’ll be comparing Desmond and Tulowitski based on their performance last season.
While Desmond has dominated every other shortstop we have discussed so far, Tulowitski is another story. The Rockies’ shortstop led all National League shortstops in every major offensive category in 2013, posting a .312 batting average with 25 home runs and 82 RBIs. Tulowitski also edged Desmond with a wOBA of .400 and an OPS of .931. Despite his crazy numbers, Tulowitski does not run away with first place in our ranking. As I mentioned before, consistency is just as important as production. While Desmond’s numbers in 2013 weren’t quite as high as Tulowitski’s, he still performed at an elite level in 158 games, whereas Tulowitski only appeared in 126 games. Desmond is also a force on the base paths, while Tulowitski only stole one base all season. Nevertheless, Tulowitski is still the best shortstop in all of baseball when he’s healthy. Fortunately for Desmond, he’s not that far behind.
Ian Desmond has been a key player for the Nationals over the last two seasons and he has become one of the best shortstops in the game. While he might not be the best in the National League right now, Desmond is certainly capable of earning that distinction in the very near future. The Nationals’ 2014 season depends on many things, and a good year from Desmond is definitely one of them. In just a few years, the prospect who at one point appeared to be headed for a career in the minors has become one of the best players in the game. And with two excelent seasons behind him, there’s no telling what he can do for the Nationals in 2014.