What Desmond Needs To Improve In 2011

Ian Desmond finished his rookie season in 2010 with the typical trials and tribulations most first-year shortstops endure. He had streaks of hot hitting (.347/.385/.465 in August),  streaks where he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn (.222/.259/.309 in June), and made mistake after mistake with the glove at shortstop (League Leading 34 errors). But since he is a rookie and because he has the physical tools to be successful at this level, we are willing to give him a mulligan in the hopes that in this his sophomore season he will begin to connect the dots that seemed so scattered in 2010. 

Tools are evaluated today among young players more than ever before, and are viewed side-by-side with production at the major league level. Desmond did not consistently produce last year but he did show he has the physical skills he needed to be valuable, all that remains will be seen is whether or not he can put it together. Let’s take a look at what he needs to improve upon to make that happen.

Learn To Hit The Slider

It didn’t take National League pitchers long to find a weakness in Ian Desmond’s swing. Generally most hitters tend to suffer a “sophomore slump” their second year in the league because pitchers have figured out their plate approach, but it is rare to really be able to pinpoint exactly what pitchers did collectively to capitalize on a players faults. 

In 2009, Desmond saw 77.1 % fastballs, 12.2 % sliders and 4.7 % curveballs. In 2010, those numbers shifted dramatically to 56.8 % fastballs, 20.4% sliders, and 8.1% curveballs. When you look at his pitch type values, its not surprising to see why. In 2010 Desmond had a plus rating for fastballs, curveballs, and changeup’s, however for sliders, the pitch off-speed pitch he saw by far more than any other, he had a -10.7 rating according to Fangraphs. Simply put…he just couldn’t hit the nickel curve to save his life. 

This is something that I’m sure the Nationals are aware of, and learning identifying the slider was probably a focal point in Desmond’s offseason training.

Be more patient
Desmond had a .317 batting average on balls hit into play (BABIP) last season. That means, among other things, that when he hit the ball in fair territory he got a hit a good deal of the time. Batters with high BABIP usually either had a very lucky season, or they are batters who make solid contact when they aren’t chasing pitches. A look at his career numbers show that his BABIP production last year wasn’t a result of luck, however a result of a strong athletic plate approach in which he hits to all fields and drives the ball when he makes contact.

Unfortunately making contact wasn’t the easiest thing for Desmond last year. He walked just 4.9% of the time, which helped result in a poor .308 on base percentage, and he struck out an unacceptable 20.8% of the time. A look back at his minor league stats indicate that this wasn’t an unusual season for him in this respect, which means that he will need to learn to identify pitches better or else he will not progress at the plate any further at the major league level. 

In 2010 he swung at 33.2% of pitches outside of the strike zone, while making contact with just 59.1 percent of those pitches. That means he whiffed at 40 percent of the pitches he swung at outside the zone. Swinging and missing doesn’t even give you a chance to register a hit.

On pitches in the strike zone he swings at, he makes contact 90% of the time, meaning that he is not recognizing pitches and chasing them out of the zone. When he guesses right in the zone, he’s hitting it very well.

Limit The Physical Mistakes, The Range is Fine

Desmond had an terrible 34 errors this season and an ugly -8.8 UZR. However a closer look at his UZR rating shows that it is mostly weighed down by his terrible -10.5 error rating. His Range Rating actually was relatively good, at 2.7. This means that the majority of Desmond’s problems last season stemmed from physical mistakes, mental lapses that resulted in something completely preventable, an error.

The good news is that mechanics are easier to teach than range. Range is a result of intangible sense of timing within the game as well as natural athleticism. Based on last years numbers, Desmond has those. He just needs to slow the process down and not boot the ball or throw it away. Hopefully Adam LaRoche at first base will help with the throws, and I’m sure after 34 errors last season, Desmond has worked all winter on the physical mistakes.