Much ink was spilled early in the season, lamenting Ian Desmond’s horrible start for the Colorado Rockies – and justifiably so. He had an OPS+ of 56 for April and 91 for May, leading to a -1.0 WAR and putting him on pace for the worst season ever.
Just as much has been published recently praising his incredible turnaround for the Colorado Rockies outfielder/first baseman. Desmond had an eye-popping 163 OPS+ for June and a 140 OPS+ for July, bringing his overall WAR back into the black at 0.2. Few players have seen the types of swings that Desmond has in his career, which begs the question: Who is Ian Desmond?
Ian Desmond is a 6-foot-3, 32-year-old in his ninth full season in the majors. He was a third-round pick drafted out of high school in 2004 by a team called the Montreal Expos, back when there was such a thing. By the time he reached the big club – now located in Washington – Desmond had a reputation as a great athlete that could hit for power, had speed on the basepaths, and played an ok shortstop.
Since then he’s made the All-Star team twice, once as a shortstop and once as a left fielder. However, in 2016, he signed the largest contract of his career as a first baseman. Desmond is making $22 million this year due to the fluctuating values of his deal – an unevenness that mirrors, in many ways, the unevenness of his performance on the field.
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For his career, Desmond has 158 homers, 170 stolen bases, and a slash line of .265/.316/.426. During his shortstop days, he won three Silver Sluggers, but he’s also finished the season with a below league-average OPS+ four times. He had a solid 2.7 WAR in 2016 and an abysmal -1.1 WAR in 2017.
Believe it or not, Desmond is currently in the midst of one of his best overall seasons, even with his early season struggles factored in. He’s never had an OBP above .335 and he’s only had one full season where his OPS was over .784. This season’s .771 OPS is above his career average of .742, though thanks to Coors Field his 93 OPS+ is slightly below his career mark of 97.
Despite his reputation as a Silver Slugger and All-Star hitter, these numbers are the very definition of mediocre.
Despite that slightly below average performance at the plate, Desmond’s work in the field may be the more pressing issue. His defensive prowess has never been incredible, though he did used to play a competent (though error-prone) shortstop, peaking at .9 dWAR in both 2014 and 2015. Those were also his last two years at the position and, over the last three seasons, Desmond has bounced around trying to find a natural home on the field.
He played a mediocre outfielder for Texas in 2016 before playing a below-average combination of first and left for the Rockies last year. This season, he’s regressed even further, accruing a -1.1 WAR playing mostly first, with only a smattering of left thrown in. Desmond is 32 and seems to be in great condition, so it’s a little hard to fathom why an above-average shortstop turned into an atrocious first baseman in so little time.
It is tempting to think that Desmond may be able to improve defensively because of his natural athleticism and background at “more difficult” positions. This may be the former shortstop fallacy talking, however, and it’s possible that Desmond never figures it out. The question for the Rockies right now is how long do they wait to see if that happens before cutting their losses and moving on?