Betting on Breed vs. Speed

desmond

I am not a gambling man, but I do believe in a few things. One is that good breeding comes through.

Sometimes, you have to keep betting on the good-looking horse, no matter how bad he ran. Last year’s Rangers were the opposite – Seabiscuit vs. Secretariat, without the storybook ending.

There’s no storybook this year. If they win the division, it’ll be news, but not shocking. But there are still loads of great stories to tell this spring, and if there’s one thing March brings, it’s thoroughbred-looking players begging for wagers.

I’m going to start this Spring Training with my personal pick for Comeback Player of the Year – which is saying something for a shortstop who hit 19 home runs. But I digress, because he’s moved on – to left field.

Ian Desmond is someone I predicted should be on this team back in the summer of 2015. Back when things were bad, and Elvis was worse, and our prospects for the post season were nil. Back before 2015 became my favorite Ranger memory. A long, long seven months ago.

Back then, I had us trading Elvis Andrus (unlikely as that was, and I admitted as much) and picking up Desmond to play short. That was asinine. The man made 27 errors. He was a minus defender, by acclaim and analysis.

He also had an off year. We all have them. I did, too – far worse than Ian’s, but that’s for my personal blog on another day.

Here’s my thoughts on Ian Desmond, Texas Rangers 2016 Opening Day (assumed) starter in Left Field.

First, I think 2015 really was an off year. The fact is not in doubt. His numbers were down across the board. The gamble is that it WAS an off year, and I’ll take those odds – just not too steep. The worry was WHY. Now, here’s my bet.

First, he was on a team where he no longer had to carry the load. Bryce Harper emerged as the best all-around player this side of Mike Trout. The pitching staff was lights out. The team with a shutdown closer (also one of my summer acquisition targets for 2016) signed a former World Series closer who has stats to put him in the argument for closer of the century (excluding Mariano Rivera – I mean humans only, not Gods).

And then summer came, and there the Nationals went, and a bad season for Desmond went down the drain, and his numbers with it.

Here’s his final line, in terms of crucial stats, for 2015:

G AB 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB WAR
156 583 27 2 19 0.233 0.29 0.384 0.674 114.7 263 3.63

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But, at the sake of regurgitating 2015 writing, here’s my tweak on what I said last summer, because most of it stands.

In terms of Desmond, we’re possibly overpaying for a downward-moving stock—back then, I was assuming he’d get over $11M a year, and cost us a draft pick. Instead, we got him for a bargain at $8M – and yes, that’s a bargain in this market for a player who has won three silver sluggers and been an all-star at a tougher all-around position than LF. But despite his down 2015, I’m gambling that a change of scenery and move from a place where he was all but anointed a franchise-level shortstop will arrest the slide and turn him back into the player we saw a couple of seasons ago.

Before 2015, Ian Desmond was reasonably considered a perennial All-Star. Here are his combined numbers and awards from 2012 to 2014, which included three Silver Slugger awards and an All-Star spot, plus a positive dWAR at SS.

G AB 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB WAR
147 569 32 3 23 0.28 0.33 0.46 0.79 80 224 2.0

Scouts have speculated he can play CF, so putting him in left limits what he has to do in terms of range and anticipation (the two toughest outfield skills to master, especially the latter) and makes him potentially a plus defender in terms of arm.

I went back and reviewed the last prospect scouting report on Desmond before he broke into the majors, from Bleacher Report in 2009. Here’s part of the take:

“He was built on a good frame at 6′-2″, 185 lbs., he had supreme strength, a stellar arm, and top-notch base running speed.”

So he has the intangibles for the outfield, especially the corners – strong, stellar arm, and speed. That last one is down in recent years, as will happen with age and a decade of professional baseball playing shortstop. That doesn’t mean he can play left field worth a lick. But if he has the work ethic and focus – and that latter part is already a plus, because he’s fully accepted the move to the outfield – he has the help.

Here’s Ian on his move to left, courtesy the great Evan Grant:

“I wanted to be a part of something that was more than the name on the back of the jersey,” Desmond said. “I wanted to win. If I needed to move positions to do that, I would. It’s bigger than me. The way I look at it, I’m not running away from something by moving; I’m running to something.”

That’s the attitude you want. So what about the numbers to back it up. Well, here’s my take, again building off analysis from last season:

The key trend that saw Desmond fall off in 2015 was his patience, which is the one area that tends to be a performance indicator. With three solid years of patience, I think we’re seeing a banged-up player who was pressing to keep up with the likes of his more talented teammates, such as Bryce Harper, while also feeling the pressure of being a power source to cover for the diminishing production from Ryan Zimmerman. There’s also something to the idea that, having rejected an extension from Washington to test the free agent market, he was pressing to produce.

My bet is Ian is a smart ballplayer; you don’t play all-star level shortstop in a media capital like DC and learn to adjust. He went through a season of pressing. My bet – educated based on ballplayers, not my personal knowledge of Ian, which is limited—is that he got that out of his system last year and will see this as a one-year, no-harm-no-foul chance to re-establish himself. And if there’s an organization in baseball able to set a player up for success, I’ll bet on the Rangers.

Jeff Banister is a great manager when it comes to the mind of his players; unlike Wash, who was a career major league hanger-on, Banny had a cup of coffee. He lived his professional life at the elbow of guys pressing to get from one level to the next. Then, his odyssey to the managers seat was not as a major league coach as much as a minor league manager. That’s a huge difference, because it means he was constantly dealing with the psyche of “shuttle players” – the guys in his office going off the walls one minute, just being called up, and a week later, in the doldrums because they’d been sent down. I don’t know Jeff Banister, but I know his ilk, and my bet is always on the career minor leaguer and minor league manager when it comes to psyches. Rare are the Joe Torre’s – the former all-stars who can relate to a struggling Derek Jeter. Rare, too, of course, are the Jeter’s. Desmond’s not that, in terms of makeup. Sorry, but aside from Beltre, no one in this Rangers clubhouse is. But the support system for Desmond making the transition is amazing.

Moreover, he’s dealing with a rookie hitting coach. I think that’s a PLUS, because I don’t think Anthony Iapoce is going to try and push any one approach to all hitters. Rather, as new blood, I think he’ll lock on to any positive in a hitter’s approach and stick to it.

Iapoce

He’ll take guidance from what has worked before, and what has traditionally worked for him (as a Cubs minor league instructor and front office analyst) For Ian, in that regard, the answer is not in left field, but in right. Let me explain.

Ian has always been a high-production/high-strikeout venture, so it doesn’t take much for that combination to find a slump. The solution for a slump, to me, lies in the opposite field. I’ve said it here before, and I’ll say it again: the best hitters are constantly at their best when hitting to all fields.

In the great book by George Will, “Men at Work”, Cal Ripken describes how he knew when Reggie Jackson was hot – it was when Reggie was hitting the ball at him or to his right. When Reggie was squaring up to center and left. He always had the strength to pull – and Ian does, in spades – but he was squared off when he was squaring up and taking middle in to away fastballs to the opposite field, and waiting on breaking balls to take them up the middle.

In looking at Ian’s approach, one thing his hot zones show is a clear trend between 2012 and 2015. In 2012, Ian hammered pitches low and in as well as up and away. As he did so, he wasn’t able to be entirely dominated by pitchers owning a half of the plate:

2012

He truly made pitchers divide the plate into quadrants. With that, he lit up the league with the numbers we showcased above. His finest season, in fact, was when he put up that Pudge Rodriguez-like spray hitting approach above, with a .500+ slugging average and a career-best (albeit still high) strikeout to walk ratio of better than 4:1.

By later in 2014, his hot zones outside the strike zone had fallen, which was particularly a problem because his discipline had dropped:

2014

At his best, in 2013 and 2014, he largely hammered low pitches, but his free-swinging meant a lot more of those blue zones outside the strike zone still constituted pitches Ian tried to reach. What I’d like to see is an approach that takes at least half of those middle-in pitches to RF for singles and doubles. It’ll drop his power, but he’ll make it up in confidence, and it’ll reinforce a short, hands-inside-the-ball swing, which is critical for a firm front-arm hitter like Ian is.

Watching video of his swing between 2012 and 2015, I don’t see a huge change, other than a bit quieter start, which stiffened his lead arm a bit, slowing his bat and probably causing a bit of his problem chasing and causing more jam-shots on inside pitches where he couldn’t extend. In 2014, Dave Magadan worked with Mitch Moreland to help him start quiet but move into momentum before shifting into the hitting position. I think Anthony takes the same approach with Desmond. I am biased, because I always have liked his approach and swing. He has tremendously strong hands and wrists, and great rotational power reminiscent of the approach taken by a young Paul Molitor.

All he really needs is to rediscover the same all-balls-to-all-fields approach he had before, along with re-establishing a bit of additional discipline, and we should see a return to 2012 to 2014 levels.

At least, that’s the dream. And in the Spring, as we are ever reminded, hope springs eternal.

So I’m betting on my horse— because the win’s enough to make me, and the loss can’t break me.

Chris Connor
As a lifelong DFW resident, Chris Connor is a diehard Rangers fan, and worships at the altar of Arlington.
He pitched - typically backing up third after doing so - and eventually settled into catching in leagues throughout Richardson and Plano in his youth, graduating from and lettering in baseball at Richardson Berkner High School in 1998. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Management and an MBA, both from UT-Dallas.
As a writer, he acknowledges that he’s never had a brilliance for brevity, but tries to meander to a meaningful point as he channels Faulkner and buys bits by the megabyte. He believes the only things more beautiful than Ted Williams’ swing are Yosemite Valley at sunrise and his wife.
He lives with the latter, along with their beloved dog and quite tolerable cat, in Allen, Texas.

2 comments

  • Athleticism, Off the charts.
    Make-up, Off the charts.
    Work ethic, Off the charts.
    Baseball IQ, + +.
    Baseball tools, + +.
    Living in NC, Nats/O’s are my regional TV teams, Nats now my 2nd favorite ball club. Desmond is impressive. His issue in my view, is that he put so much pressure on himself to be the “Captain” of his club in so many ways that it got in the way of what he does best, just play the game between the lines.
    Despite the obvious talent, the overall personality of the Nats roster is curiously passive and has lacked a real leader. No one outside of Desmond was willing to try and be that. Unfortunately he was out on an island. Combine that with, questionable advice from his agent, what appears to be a GM strong on talent evaluation but lacking in accepting that roster chemistry matters, with his own internal sense that he needed to do and be everything, and it was just time to get a fresh start.
    I’m on board. He’s going to have a great year, and better yet a great experience contributing to a very fun and winning ball club.

  • I like your writing. Very similar to the reason why I like Jamey Newberg’s writing. Its nice to hear a personality.

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