Until yesterday’s uplifting win against Philadelphia, Nationals fans were having a tough week. The stadium was invaded by Phillies fans on opening day, causing a backlash from the home fans, the pitching staff had walked a total of 17 batters in just two games, the team had 18 runs scored against them and scored only five themselves, and they still had a grueling list of opponents to look forward to for the remainder of April. Amidst deflated fans, the horrendous pitching, and runners left stranded, there was at least one man that took ahold of his opportunity. This man was shortstop Ian Desmond.
By now, Desmond has become a household name in the living rooms of Washington fans across the DC-Metro area and further. Some will remember the overhyped prediction made about him years ago, while others were wowed by his breakout season last year in the minors that later carried over to the big leagues in September. In an organization that has been lacking legitimate prospects for years, Desmond has become a bridge between the squandered past and the slowly brightening future. He forcefully took the starting shortstop spot from Cristian Guzman this spring and has now officially become the future of the Nationals at that position.
After a less than spectacular season debut in the home opener, where he went 0 for 2 with a walk and a fielding error, Desmond reintroduced himself to the Nationals’ fanbase in the team’s second game with a solo shot to one of the deepest parts of the park (415 feet for those counting at home). The pitch that left the park was off a 89 MPH Cole Hamels fastball near the bottom of the strikezone. His fielding also looked sharp at times and he was a participant in three different double play connections, two of which involved his mate at 2B, Adam Kennedy. With all the energy and excitement the kid brings to the team, it is sometimes easy to forget that he has his faults just like every other rookie in the league.
In his first at-bat against Hamels on Thursday, Desmond swung at every pitch and then got fooled by a Hamels changeup on the outside of the plate. Given the superiority of Hamels change, this is hardly something to be concerned about. In the next at-bat against Hamels, he rallied and drilled the ball for his home run and then in his third at-bat, he drove the ball, an 87 MPH fastball, to left field for a double that brought home Nyger Morgan. The recovery by Desmond is a sign of a good ballplayer, but it is what he did with the rest of his at-bats that draws a bit of concern. In the 7th inning, he swung at only one of Chad Durbin’s pitches eventually taking a seat on three called strikes. Then, in the 8th inning, he swung at all four of Madson’s pitches, eventually striking out on another changeup in the dirt. With no other pitch has Desmond struggled with as much as the change. Dating back to his debut last September, Desmond has seen 23 changeups. Out of those 23, he has whiffed at 34.8% of them and has only put 13% of them in play. Clearly, he struggles with the off-speed stuff.
Additionally, Desmond has begun a trend early in the season of swinging at nearly everything (excluding only the at-bat against Durbin). Sure it has only been two games and Desmond has probably had some jitters as a a new starter in the big show, but his swing percentage is up to 62.1% from last season’s 46.6% and his swing percentage for balls outside the strike zone is even higher (56.3% vs 23.3% in 2009).
These problems could easily go away after a week or two as he accrues more plate appearences, but at the same time it is something to watch for over the next few games.
This brings us to the other side of Desmond’s game, his defense. No one will deny that Desmond has more range and will get to more balls over the course of the season than the aging Cristian Guzman, but anyone who has watched him over the years will surely note his frequent mental lapses in the field and errant throws that have caused so much frustration amongst fans of the team. He had seven errors in spring training and already has two this season, both of them balls that he booted. In each of his minor league seasons he had at least 20 errors, including 28 last season between Harrisburg and Syracuse. How much of a concern should these errors be at this point? For now, not much. Take for example three of the better defensive shortstops in the game, Jimmy Rollins, Troy Tulowitzki, and Derek Jeter. Each of these guys struggled in the minors with errors and ended up fine after some time in the big leagues.
Rollins, like Desmond, had at least 20 errors in each of his two seasons in the minor leagues. Jeter also had a minimum of 20 errors in his four seasons in the Yankees farm system, including one season with 56! Tulowitzki, while not as bad as the other two, put 25 E’s on the board in the season before his major league debut. There are varying reasons for the high error numbers in the minors, including worse field conditions, a lack of experience, and less talented players catching the balls thrown to them at first, but the improvement by these three guys once they were promoted provides hope that Desmond may also improve with time. You could also consider the case of Ryan Zimmerman when speculating about Ian Desmond’s defensive future. Zimmerman, always a vacuum at thirdbase for the Nationals, had some serious issues with his throws for the first three years of his career. After enough repetitions and some mentoring from various coaches and players, Zimmerman finally seems to have moved past this problem.
Barring injury or a plunge towards the Mendoza line, Ian Desmond will be the starting shortstop for the Nationals for the remainder of the season and possibly further. Like any other rookie, he is going to struggle at the plate at times and he is going to have miscues in the field. There is a lot to like about him as a player, but there are also some potential areas that could lead to failure. In the end, though, the job is his to lose and now he has to start making the adjustments that successful major leaguers make to take his game to the next level.