WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 4: Ian Desmond #6 of the Washington Nationals runs to first against the New York Mets in the third inning at Nationals Park on September 4, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
26-year-old Washington Nationals' shortstop Ian Desmond put up a .289/.338/.417 line in the second half of the 2011 season after a .223/.264/.308 first half, and he needed a particularly strong stretch at the end the year, which coincided with Nats' skipper Davey Johnson's decision to move Desmond to the top of the order, to get his season slash up to .253/.298/.358 for the year.
After the Nationals' manager moved the infielder to the top of the Nats' batting order in the middle of August, Desmond finally got comfortable at the plate, and the Montreal Expos' '04 3rd Round pick had a .303/.340/.433 line with nine doubles, four HR's and a .365 BABIP in the last 42 games and 190 plate appearances of the season. In 50 plate appearances as the first batter of the game, Desmond had a .295/.380/.500 slash in 2011. Barring the acquisition of a true leadoff hitter/center fielder-type, the Nats' shortstop's expected to lead off for Washington in 2012. At least that's the plan as of January 25th...
In an MLB Network Radio interview with New York Post writer Joel Sherman and Mike Ferrin Tuesday night, Desmond was asked what it was he needed to do in order to improve his own game and finally "put it all together" in what will be his third MLB season? "I feel like this is going to be the year," Desmond responded, "I feel like that every year. I prepare as hard as I can in the offseason, but baseball being the way it is, there's always going to be your hiccups here and there. Obviously, it would be nice to come out this year and win a championship, and I think to do so I'll have to play up to what my potential is and what the organization wants me to do and we'll only know in October if I hit it or not."
Desmond led MLB SS's in K's in 2011, collecting 139 in 639 plate appearances for a 21.2 K% on the season. In the second-half of the '11 campaign, even after he'd begun to improve at the plate when he made contact, the shortstop continued to strike out at a high rate, K'ing 19 times in 91 plate appearances in July, 26 times in 117 PA's in August and 23 times in 122 PA's in September. Cutting down on the K's has been a focus of Desmond's offseason work. "I've just really been concentrating on working on the flaws that I had last year," Desmond told the MLB Network Radio hosts, "I think I struck out way too much. I think that kind of had something to do with my balance in the box. I tried to adjust my stance so I was a little bit more stable. A little more patient, let the ball get a little bit deeper. [I'm] just trying to work on speed and staying healthy. Trying to stretch out a lot, just trying to make myself a better ballplayer."
Davey Johnson helped Desmond make some adjustments at the plate and when he saw improvement from his shortstop he told reporters that from what he saw, "Desi's starting to look like what I think Desi should look like."
Desmond's 80 wRC+ were the third-lowest amongst qualified shortstops, his +1.4 WAR was 8th overall amongst NL SS's. At short, Desmond managed to cut down on 2010's league-leading 34 total errors. Desmond made just 23 errors in 2011, a marked improvement, but he still had the second-highest total in the NL and third-highest total errors in the majors finishing behind Rangers' shortstop Elvis Andrus, who made 25, and the Cubs' Starlin Castro, who made 29. With a more cautious approach and a willingness to occasionally pocket balls he reaches because of his range, Desmond limited his throwing errors, making just four this season after committing 13 throwing errors in 2010.
D.C. GM Mike Rizzo said he expects some improvement from last season based solely on the growth the core members of the team will make. "We feel that there will be improvements in [Wilson] Ramos and [Ian Desmond] at short and [Danny Espinosa] at second base," Rizzo told reporters in a late-December interview, not to mention the contributions Zimmerman, LaRoche and others will make just by being available this year. "We feel that we're going to get an uptick in offense just from those players improving and getting to their career norms," Rizzo said. Desmond told the MLB Network Radio hosts Tuesday night that he agrees, and sees Jayson Werth as one player in particular who's bound to have a big year.
"To be quite honest," Desmond said, "I think last year... if Jayson does exactly what Jayson did, and Ryan Zimmerman's in the lineup all year long and [Stephen Strasburg] is healthy from day one, I think the year finishes, I don't know... Wild Card? Or whatever it may have been." LaRoche, Zimmerman and Strasburg all missed significant time last year, the Nats had a change of manager in the middle of the year, there was some turmoil, Desmond said, but, "I don't think Jayson hindered the team at all, by any means. I think Jayson helped us with his leadership, his winning experience," and the example he set on the field and in the clubhouse.
The core of the Nationals' team is a year older, the younger players have that much more experience and their double play combination is young and talented. Desmond told the MLB Network Radio hosts last night that the comfort level the Nats have developed will make a difference. "Credit to Davey [Johnson]," Desmond said, "When Davey came on board, he ran us out there. Day, night, whatever it may have been. Banged up or not, we were out there playing and growing. It definitely does pay its dividends to have the same guy out there with you all day every day."
Washington's counting on the fact that the years of development are leading toward something now, or in the near future. Desmond says they have the right man leading them forward. "I think everyone in the clubhouse believes in Davey. I think everyone in the front office believes in Davey, and I think most importantly Davey believes in us. And that was kind of the message that he brought." That message is that the Nationals think they're ready to compete, with or without Prince Fielder. They'll need Ian Desmond to put it all together in order to do so, and the Nats' shortstop knows it.