Did the media miss the big story in the coverage of the 98-64 NL East Champion Washington Nationals by focusing almost exclusively (at least nationally) on the two stories that dominated the coverage of the Nats' 2012 campaign: 1) The decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg; and 2) The rookie campaign (and every word and action) of 19-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper? In a late-season edition of 106.7 the FAN In D.C.'s The Mike Rizzo Show with Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier, the eponymous Nats' GM and Executive Vice President of Baseball ops said he thought the media had whiffed by focusing way too heavily on the team's '09 and 2010 no.1 overall picks.
"No doubt about it," Rizzo said. "You guys whiffed. The whole media whiffed on this story. This is a team that is 25, 28 deep. There [were] terrific human-interest stories, baseball stories, all over the place. And it was kind of clouded by all the Strasburg discussion and all the Harp-hype and that type of thing. And I think we didn't recognize that this is one heck of a story. This is a great team that's exciting to watch. They're always fast paced and they're young and athletic and stories like Ian Desmond, that was certainly undervalued and the rotation and that type of thing. But we understand the process too. The stars get the attention. But we're okay with being that quiet team that nobody knows about that could sneak up on people. But we're not a mystery anymore. The other teams in the league know us and they respect us as we respect them. And they're ready to play us and we're ready to play them."
Rizzo was right about one thing for sure. In his fourth year in the majors, Ian Desmond did (rather quietly) manage to both sneak up on and surprise people with his offensive output over 130 games and 547 plate appearances by hitting 33 doubles and 25 HRs and finishing the year with a .292/.335/.511 line in a +5.4 fWAR campaign. The 26-going-on-27-year-old shortstop who debuted in 2009, posted a .269/.308/.392 line with 27 doubles and 10 HRs in 154 games and 574 PAs in which he was worth +1.3 fWAR in 2010 and followed that up with a 2011 season in which he struggled at the plate and finished the year with a .253/.298/.358 line, 27 doubles and eight home runs in 154 games and 639 PAs over which he was worth +1.4 fWAR.
The change for Desmond really began late in the 2011 season after Davey Johnson took over on the Nationals' bench. After posting a .232/.280/.325 line with 18 doubles and four home runs over the first 112 games and 449 PAs in 2011, Desmond caught fire late that summer, putting up a .303/.340/.433 line with nine doubles, a triple and four home runs over the final 42 games and 190 PAs. "He had a solid last six weeks," Rizzo explained in a March 2012 MLB Network Radio interview. "We stood him up, got him more erect at the plate, which allowed him to see the baseball more and [he] wasn't locking out his front side. I know this is getting kind of technical jargon, but it really freed him up to turn on pitches and to take balls to right field."
"I don't know, for whatever reason when I got here," Davey Johnson told reporters last season when discussing the changes in his shortstop's production, "[Desmond] was kind of trying to serve the ball to right field, let the ball get deep and kind of flare these little hits into right. He'd occasionally get some hits, but I remembered him as hitting the ball where it's pitched. The ball's inside, you get it out front, the ball's away you go the other way and kind of drop that head in there."
The changes the Nationals made to Desmond's approach at the plate focused on getting the infielder to simply hit the ball where it's pitched as the Nats' skipper explained to MLB.com's Bill Ladson in an article last season. "'Now he's handling balls on the inside part of the plate and he's pulling them,'" Johnson said, "'He's hitting balls more where they're pitched. He's looking to hit the ball hard, not guide it somewhere.'"
As impressive as his offensive output was, Desmond's defensive improvements in 2012 may have been more of a surprise. The shortstop who committed a league-leading 34 Es in 2010 (21 fielding, 17 throwing), and made 23 in 2011 (19 FE, 4 TE) cut that number down to 15 Es (8 FE, 7 TE) in 2012, while posting a career-best .970 fld% and a +6.5 UZR/150 which was up from -5.5 in 2011 and -9.4 in 2010. In an appearance on the MLB Network after the 2012 season ended, Desmond attributed his improvement at short to some advice he received from Larry Bowa:
"Before I would take a million ground balls," Desmond said, "But the wrong way. I talked to... actually, Larry Bowa deserves a lot of credit. He gave me a pointer last year in the middle of the year, that I needed to shuffle my feet instead of crossing my feet. My ball is coming out more straight. And it took away that sink."
All the advice he received over the last few years and the changes and adjustments he made along the way resulted in a marked improvement in Desmond's all-around game in 2012. In an interview during the Nats' postseason run, Davey Johnson said in his mind it was a toss-up between Desmond and first baseman Adam LaRoche when it came to the Nationals' 2012 MVP. "For me, I mean, I would have to vote for Adam LaRoche to be the MVP, but it's a toss‑up with Ian Desmond, the things he's done. Got a lot of big hits, gifted defensively. I mean, he's been outstanding. I can't say enough about Ian. Kind of put him under my wing. He's been a fun project from two or three years ago when I was a consultant."
Though it may have been overshadowed somewhat in terms of the coverage it received as compared to Strasburg's shutdown and Harper's rookie campaign, there's no way to look back at the 2012 Nationals' season and not note how big a role Ian Desmond played in getting Washington into the postseason for the first time.