Things are good in Natsland. The team is laden for talent for the 2013 season, spirits are high among the fanbase, William Howard Taft is onboard and the Stephen Strasburg shutown thing is in the past. Natitude is at an all time high.
With things going as well as they are in D.C., the talk turns to keeping their core in place long term. Pitcher Jordan Zimmerman is the most likely candidate for a contract extension, fielding questions and candidly discussing the matter at this past weekend’s Gnatfest (a celebration of bugs.)
Zimmerman isn’t the only player the team might lock up. Ian Desmond is fresh off a terrific season as the Nats shortstop and into his arbitration years. Like Zimmerman, Desmond isn’t eligible to become a free agent until 2016. Unlike Zimmerman, Ian Desmond doesn’t have the strongest track record to work off.
Ian Desmond is lucky in one respect. As a shortstop, there are essentially no offensive expectations whatsoever. He doesn’t even need to bring a bat to the plate so long as he plays the field 160 times a year.
To his eternal credit, Ian Desmond did more than just stand at the plate like a light-hitting statue. Ian Desmond showed surprising pop, more than doubling his career home run total by clouting 25 in 2012. Desmond doubled his 2011 ISO in 2012 and, most eye-popping of all, nearly tripled the home run per fly ball rate he posted in 2011.
These numbers scream regression, right?
Well, yes. Of course they do. But that doesn’t mean his parade of taters came solely via random chance and good fortune. Beyond the Box Score showed earlier this year that some of the underlying numbers suggest Desmond might be able to maintain some of his power in the future.
Reassuring for the mathematically inclined, there are also physical clues that point to Ian Desmond’s breakout being tied to real-world adjustments. Desmond was among the Nats players who benefitted most from manager Davey Johnson‘s belief that hitters should hit the ball where it is pitched, rather than selling out for power and getting burned inside.
How did these changes manifest in Ian Desmond’s power breakout? Better handling of pitches up in the zone, resulting in more power to all fields.
In 2011, Ian Desmond managed to hooked and coaxed eight home runs around the left field foul pole. In 2012, his Hit Tracker page looks like someone spilled a bag of skittles, with little round circles appearing from pole to pole.
ESPN Stats & Info heat maps show a player with a new found ability to handle pitches up in the zone. A striking difference from year to year.
For an example of Desmond in action, check out this tater tot Desmond hit off notorious home run avoider Matt Cain, riding a fastball up in the zone out over the fence in right field at Nats Park.
2013 is a huge year for Desmond. Nats GM Mike Rizzo attempts the balancing act between “taking on risk that 2012 is a mirage” versus “this arbitration is going to get hella expensive if we aren’t careful” while the opposite holds true for Desmond. Demonstrate the ability to be a power-hitting shortstop on a winning team? That’s valuable. Opting to pass up financial security only to see his career year slip farther into the past.
Most likely, Desmond will put together a season slightly below 2012 but much better than 2011. The changes Desmond made should stick, though the ability to hit oppo dongs on the regular might just turn into the ability to fly out to the warning track in right field.
Even if Desmond only manages the .166 ISO and 18 home runs Bill James projects, he remains a valuable player who, after a couple years in the wilderness, became a key piece on an excellent team. Soon enough, he will be paid as such.