Apparently, WAR is a conserved quantity between middle infielders.
The offseason was filled with anguished discussion about the future of the Nationals in the middle infield. Well, maybe not filled, but I remember at least one or two comments comparing the relative merits of current Nats DP combo of SS-cum-2B Danny Espinosa and SS Ian Desmond. After a breakout rookie season when he hit .236/.323./.414 with a 104 wRC+, 21 HRs, and serious consideration for 2011 Rookie of the Year (at least before his second-half slump), Danny "Glover" Espinosa seemed a lock for the MI going forward. Some fans noted with concern Ian Desmond's slumping sophomore year, in which he bounced around the order and hit only .253/.298/.358 with 8 HRs and an 80 wRC+. There was muttering in the Nat-o-sphere about Rendon or Lombardozzi taking over at 2B, with Espinosa moving to his "natural" spot at SS and Desi being traded or becoming a super-utility guy. All the while, Desmond struggled with errors while Epsy flashed the leather; the advanced fielding stats showed Danny as above league average at 2B, while Ian was definitely below average at SS. Still, the Nationals showed a vote of confidence in both players, bringing them back as the starting middle infielders in 2012. How has that worked out?
After the jump, a hard look at each player's 2012 early season performance. (Stats through Sunday's game, courtesy of FanGraphs).
Desi Makes Me Happy
Ian Desmond is off on quite a tear so far this season. He's hitting .267/.299/.442 (103 wRC+) with 4 HRs. That's slightly above league average on offense, thanks to last night's triple. But, remember that he's a shortstop. An NL-average SS only has an 85 wRC+ (hitting .249/.304/.367), so he's even farther above average with the bat as a defensive specialist. And speaking of defense, Ian has cut down his errors to the lowest rate in his career while showing good range and a strong arm. The advanced stats agree, giving him above-league-average marks for the first time since 2009. In fact, he's on pace for a 3.5-4 WAR season (his previous high was 1.4 WAR in 2011). That makes Desmond one of the top 5 shortstops in the league.
Okay, what's behind Ian's current success? If we believe the defensive improvement is for real, we can probably chalk it up to maturity and experience. He's learned when to hold on to the ball and when to risk the hero play. We always knew he had +RANGE and +ARM. The improvement on the offensive side is more interesting (by which I mean, we have more stats to dig around in).
This season, Desi's walking in a miniscule 4.7% of PA, which is well below NL average (8.3%), but about in line with his career norm (5.2%). However, he's only striking out 18.9% of the time, which is below both NL average (19.2%) and below his career K% (20.0%). His power this season is another encouraging sign: he's already got 4 HRs, which corresponds to a 12.5% HR/FB rate--above both his career numbers and NL average. He's also had only a .301 BAbip so far this year, which is above league average (.289) but below Desi's career average (.314). At first glance, it doesn't look like luck. Plugging those stats into the Fielding Independent Offense (FIO) calculator, we get a FIO of 93, and CaB-FIO (FIO adjusted to his career BAbip) of 99. That's less than his current 103 wRC+, but both figures are close to league average, and well above the average NL SS offensive output. It's also interesting to note that 3 of the 4 NL SS who rate better than Desi on offense right now have BAbips in the .367 to .392 range, which means their hitting might have a bit of good luck behind it.
What's behind the good bat? We know Ian worked with his HS coach in the offseason, but can we see if anything's changed this season? Let's take a look at how he's hitting the ball:
I apologize for the ugliness of the table, but there are some interesting trends here. First, his line-drive rate has steadily increased, while his GB% has steadily decreased. This season, Desi is also hitting close to his career high FB% with nearly twice as many balls leaving the yard as in 2010/2011. At first glance, it looks like Desi was bringing a home run swing to every AB in his 2009 audition (low LD%, high FB%, high HR/FB). In 2010 and 2011, he tried to square up more balls, increasing his LD% at the expense of both FB% and GB%. I assume at least some of that is growth as a hitter, and figuring out what you can hit. So far, 2012 looks like the year he's putting it all together: a powerful swing with high LD%, higher FB% and high HR/FB. Say what you want about him swinging at the first pitch, he's putting a good swing on that pitch. Here's what he's getting to hit:
So far, pitchers seem to be giving him the usual mix: a lot of fastballs in his debut, then more and more offspeed and breaking pitches once he showed he could hit FBs. So far this season, it's about the same mix of pitches he saw in 2010/2011. Finally, let's look at his plate discipline:
Well, to no one's surprise, the stats back up our perception of Ian as a free-swinger. He's swinging at more pitches in and out of the zone this season, both more than his previous seasons and league average. Pitchers are throwing him a lot of stuff in the zone (77% first-pitch strikes! no wonder he swings early), and he's going after it.His contact rate is below average, and he's got more swing-and-miss than league average, but he seems to be compensating for lower contact with more swings. So far, it's working.
Espi Makes Me Sad
Danny Espinosa has struggled so far. He's hitting .194/.292/.245 (50 wRC+) with 1 HR. Second base is a defense-first position, but even so the NL-average 2B has an 89 wRC+ (.243/.312/.369). Sadly, Danny has even had problems defensively this season, with a career-low fielding percentage and below-average ratings from the advanced fielding stats for the first time in his career. He's a sub-replacement player right now, with -0.3 WAR. That puts him in the bottom 5 second basemen in the league--in fact, he's dead last among 2B with at least 100 PA.
I'm going to assume that the trouble with the glove is perhaps related to his funk at the plate. What's going on there? Well, first of all, he's striking out tons, fanning in 29.7% of his PA. He is managing to walk at a healthy 12.2% rate (well above league average), although I wonder if pitchers will stop throwing him anything obviously out of the zone if his slump continues. His prodigious 2011 power is gone, too, with only a single HR in 115 PA. It's not all BAbip's fault either: his .281 this season isn't much below NL average or his career .284 BAbip. His FIO comes in at 63 with a CaB-FIO of 61. This argues he's underperforming slightly, but even a 60ish wRC+ would be about 30% less offense than an NL average 2B. Let's look at his batted balls:
Wow, looks like someone has changed his approach at the plate, right? We'd talked a little bit last season about what an extreme FB hitter Danny was--not anymore! He's hitting a lot more line drives and grounders, and far fewer FBs. He's also hitting those FBs with less authority. Granted, this may be a result more of how and where he's being pitched than the plane of his swing, but the difference is striking. How is he being pitched? Take a look:
He's getting fewer fastballs and a little more breaking stuff, but not a dramatic change. Is the answer in his plate discipline?
The differences here look small, but there may be a worrying trend. This season, Danny is swinging at more pitches both in and outside the zone, but he's making a lot less contact outside the zone. His overall contact rate is down, too, and his swing-and-miss is up. He's also seeing more first-pitch strikes, but a below-average number of strikes overall. Looks like the numbers say Espi is getting bad pitches, chasing them, and missing them. LASIK?
Last season, Ian Desmond was a 1.4-WAR shortstop, and Danny Espinosa was a 3.5-WAR second baseman. This season, things are reversed. Desi looks ready to have a 3.5-4 WAR year, with improved fielding, and what might be legit power to bring value to his low-OBP approach at the plate. Danny is struggling, though, playing replacement level or lower, chasing bad pitches, and making misplays in the field. If Danny can't figure things out, the #lombolobby may get a stat post of their own.