The Nats' historic double play combination: Part I - Ian Desmond

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first half of the 2014 schedule, each of the Nationals middle infielders are on pace to challenge the record for the most strikeouts by a middle infielder in a single season. Where is the contact rate going wrong?

Since this figures to be a long post, we’re going to split it in two.  Today, I’m going to focus mainly on Ian Desmond. I’ll follow it up with a post later in the week on Espinosa.

The expected return of Bryce Harper early this week should do a lot of things to help the Nationals’ lineup. It will lengthen a lineup that has often looked helpless when the bottom of the order comes around. It should strengthen the middle of the lineup with a second left-handed power bat. More than anything, though, it may break up what has been a historic double play combination to this point.

Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa each excel in some areas of the game. Espinosa is a gold glove caliber Second Baseman with a little bit of pop and good speed. He can switch hit, but we’ll get into that when we focus is on him later in the week. Desmond provides a solid glove at Shortstop and has a pretty good shot at joining the 20/20 club in 2014 for the third straight season. While both players bring plenty to the table, though, there’s something else that the Nats’ double play combo is doing at a record-breaking rate… Striking Out!

Given that no middle infielder has ever struck out more than Espinosa did in 2012 (189… 16th all-time), we should be less than surprised to see him among the leaderboards this season. Espinosa currently ranks fifth in baseball with 93 strikeouts.  Ian Desmond has never exactly rivaled Victor Martinez or Yadier Molina with his contact rate, but he’s gone from a slightly below average strikeout rate (21.8% career) to.. well.. Danny Espinosa. His 99 strikeouts so far this season rank second in baseball behind Ryan Howard. His 29.5% strikeout rate in 2014 is actually slightly higher than Espinosa’s career average.

By their current paces, Desmond would be on pace to break Espinosa’s record of 189 strikeouts by a middle infielder. Espinosa would be on that pace if he remained an everyday starter. As of today’s writing, they would be on target to shatter the record for most strikeouts by a double play combination. While Espinosa figures to be removed from the everyday lineup so long as (knock on wood) the rest of the Nationals’ starters can remain healthy*, there’s still a pretty good chance that the two combine for more strikeouts than two middle infielders on the same team ever have in a season.

*And that Ryan Zimmerman can handle throwing from 3b

What Happened to Desi’s Contact Rate?

Season PA BB% K% ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
2009 89 5.6% 15.7% .280 .292 .370 125
2010 574 4.9% 19.0% .124 .317 .306 86
2011 639 5.5% 21.8% .104 .317 .289 79
2012 547 5.5% 20.7% .218 .332 .362 128
2013 655 6.6% 22.1% .173 .336 .341 116
2014 336 6.3% 29.5% .180 .291 .308 94
Total 2840 5.7% 21.8% .161 .321 .323 102

Since we’re here to talk about strikeouts, let’s hammer home the obvious outlier here. Desmond has struck out in 21.8% of his career plate appearances. He’s never struck out in more than 22.1% of his PA over a full season.  Through the first half of 2014, he’s struck out in 29.5% of his plate appearances, or 1.35 times as often as his career rate.

I’ve left BABIP in the table because it does show us that Desmond has hit into some poor luck in 2014 despite his contact struggles. Desmond has a .321 career BABIP, and hasn’t had a season where it’s finished lower than .317 since his late season trial in 2009. This season, he has just a .291 BABIP… a full thirty points below his career number. Since BABIP removes strikeouts and home runs from the equation, the high strikeout rate isn’t affecting it.  Since his career BABIP doesn’t match up with his xBABIP, we’ll take a look at the types of balls in play that he’s generating later on. Since the strikeout rate is more concerning, let’s focus on some of his plate discipline numbers first.

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Con.% Z-Con.% Con.% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2009 25.5% 66.9% 47.8% 59.5% 87.6% 80.7% 53.8% 60.7% 9.1%
2010 33.2% 66.5% 48.6% 59.1% 89.7% 78.5% 46.3% 61.9% 10.0%
2011 30.8% 61.3% 45.3% 66.8% 89.7% 81.5% 47.6% 61.2% 8.2%
2012 37.5% 72.8% 54.6% 61.5% 87.4% 78.2% 48.3% 70.8% 11.8%
2013 35.6% 70.2% 51.1% 62.2% 83.5% 75.3% 44.9% 66.6% 12.4%
2014 34.0% 68.1% 49.9% 48.0% 82.8% 70.2% 46.7% 61.0% 14.8%
Total 33.9% 67.5% 49.7% 60.6% 86.8% 77.3% 46.9% 64.4% 11.0%

Let’s break it down.

  • He’s not actually chasing at a higher rate than he has in the past. Desmond’s 34.0% O-Swing% is roughly the same as his 33.9% career rate. It’s also lower than it was in the past two seasons, when Desmond had his two best years.
  • He’s actually swinging less often than he has in the past two seasons overall, though he’s still a touch above his career rate. Desmond has taken more pitches in the zone (31.9%) than he has in the past couple of seasons.
  • The big takeaway, of course, is the O-Contact%. Desmond has always had a fairly high chase rate, but he’s made contact on 60.6% of those swings throughout his career. He’s never been below 59.1%... until this season. He’s making contact on just 48% of those pitches that he chases this season. No team has a lower O-Contact% than 60.6% so far this season.
  • He’s also struggling a bit more at making contact within the strike zone. His 82.8% is a career low, though it’s not that far off of his 2013 performance in the category. The fact that it’s dropped each season since 2011 is a bit troubling.
  • His Swinging Strike % is 14.8%, a career high by a fairly wide margin (2.4%) and 3.8% higher than his career rate. As you would expect when looking at his contact rates both in the zone and outside of the zone, his SwStr% has risen in each of the past three seasons.

The higher Swinging Strike Rate is probably a byproduct of Desmond’s increased power. In his first two full seasons, Desmond’s ISO* was .114.  From 2012-2014, Desmond’s ISO is .191, which ranks third among MLB Shortstops behind Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez. As most of us have seen watching Desmond every day, he doesn’t really believe in shortening his swing. He did it a little more regularly in his first couple of seasons in the league, posting a 9.0 SwStr% from 2009-2011. That figure was poor for a SS, but it was a far cry from his 12.7% from 2012-2014, which is 2% higher than Brandon Crawford (2nd highest SwStr%) in that period. So, the ISO goes up 77 points… the Swinging Strike Percentage goes up 3.7 points. He’s sacrificed contact for power. At what point does he have to throttle it back just a touch, though… and can he?

*ISO = Isolated Slugging Percentage.  The simple formula is Slugging Percentage – Batting Average.  It’s a better measure of pure power than Slugging Percentage because it negates batting average.

True Outcomes

Many of us are familiar with the term Three True Outcomes. If we weren’t before the Adam Dunn years, then he made sure we were aware of the term. For those who aren’t, the three truest outcomes are a Walk, a Strikeout, or a Home Run. The term Three True Outcomes Hitter is often tossed around with a player like Dunn, who walks an awful lot, strikes out an awful lot, and has light-tower power when he does make contact. Does Ian Desmond fit that mold, or does he just try to?

The simplest answer is that Desmond simply doesn’t (and will likely never) walk enough to be considered a TTOH.  The term is generally reserved for players with a walk rate of higher than 10%, a strikeout rate of higher than 25%, and a .200 ISO.  Right now, Desmond only fits one of those categories.  Yet, when you look at his most significant drop in terms of Contact Rate this season, here’s the group that you find….

Name O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
George Springer 26.8% 73.2% 42.0% 68.8% 60.9% 18.6%
Chris Carter 32.5% 72.4% 42.4% 77.5% 64.8% 17.4%
Adam Dunn 19.2% 64.1% 45.1% 80.9% 70.7% 10.9%
Marcell Ozuna 31.4% 65.0% 45.7% 81.2% 68.1% 14.9%
Ian Desmond 34.0% 68.1% 48.0% 82.8% 70.2% 14.8%
Chris Davis 31.7% 75.2% 49.2% 77.3% 67.2% 16.0%
Ryan Howard 33.5% 71.1% 49.8% 80.5% 67.8% 15.2%
Nick Castellanos 34.7% 76.8% 50.6% 82.5% 71.9% 15.0%
Matt Kemp 30.6% 66.7% 51.4% 81.2% 70.8% 13.5%
Danny Espinosa 37.8% 70.7% 52.4% 75.6% 65.9% 17.4%

  • Springer is on his way to becoming a TTOH. He’s walked 10.7% of the time this season, struck out 32.9% of the time, and has a .225 ISO. He always had high walk and strikeout rates in the minors, so this shouldn’t be surprising.
  • Carter has walked less this season, but has an 11.5% walk rate, a 34.4% strikeout rate, and a .221 career ISO.
  • Dunn is the poster boy for TTOH… 16% walk rate, 28.5% strikeout rate, .255 ISO in his career.
  • Davis and Howard fit the mold as well. Davis more in the past couple of seasons. Howard for his career.
  • Ozuna and Castellanos haven’t even completed a full season in MLB, so they have a built in excuse.
  • Kemp had a couple of monster seasons, but has pretty much fallen off a cliff statistically by the age of 29. Including 2013 and 2014, Kemp has been worth -0.8 fWAR. He’s had some injury troubles, but that’s just astounding.
  • Espinosa is Espinosa. We’ll get to him later in the week.

Five of the bottom ten players in O-Contact% (Desmond’s most significant dropoff) are Three True Outcome Hitters.  They have massive power. They draw their fair share of walks. And yes… They strike out a ton. As he’s never walked in more than 6.6% of his PA in a single season, Desmond doesn’t belong in this group, but he’s there through the first 81 games.

He’s Not Seeing As Many First Pitch Strikes As He Used To

As the table above tells us, Desmond isn’t seeing as many first pitch strikes as he did in the past.  As opposed to 70.8% in 2012 and 66.6% last season, just 61.0% of the first pitches Desmond is seeing this season are strikes.  Ordinarily, you would think that this would be beneficial to a hitter. The count is immediately in their favor, which means that they should end up seeing better pitches to hit.  For a notorious first ball fastball hitter like Desmond, though, this hasn’t been the case. Anything I could come up with to explain it would be pure speculation, but I’ll take a minor stab at it anyway.

1. Part of the reason that he’s seeing less first pitch strikes is that he’s cut down on his own aggression at the plate.  As we can see, he’s chasing less pitches out of the zone than he had been the past two seasons and he’s swinging less frequently when pitches are in the zone as well.  I would hazard a guess that quite a bit of the F-Strike% from the past has been because he’s chased pitches out of the zone.

2. With years of below average plate discipline numbers in his past, it’s plain to see that Desmond doesn’t have a lot of experience working deep counts.  From 2010-2013, Desmond never finished lower than 33rd in MLB in fewest Pitches per Plate Appearance.  He only had one top five finish (2011 – 2nd), but he’s never really run a lot of deep counts.  Part of this is because of his love of the first pitch fastball (which he’s seeing less and less often), but it’s always been rare to see Desmond run up the enemy pitch count.  Perhaps he’s just having trouble adjusting to not seeing those first pitch strikes.

How Much BABIP Correction Is He Due?

Given Desmond’s .321 career BABIP (.291 so far this season), you would think he’s due quite a bit of regression.  Unfortunately, xBABIP tells us that simply isn’t the case. Let’s have a look at the numbers.

Year GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB IFH% BUH% xBABIP BABIP
2009 1.61 11.8% 54.4% 33.8% 8.7% 17.4% 8.1% 50.0% .300 .292
2010 1.67 15.8% 52.7% 31.6% 9.2% 7.7% 7.8% 30.0% .310 .317
2011 1.70 17.5% 51.9% 30.5% 9.0% 6.0% 7.0% 18.2% .315 .317
2012 1.38 17.9% 47.6% 34.5% 7.3% 18.2% 5.8% 50.0% .320 .332
2013 1.27 22.5% 43.4% 34.1% 9.0% 12.9% 7.1% 62.5% .335 .336
2014 1.36 13.6% 49.8% 36.6% 12.8% 17.9% 8.5% 0.0% .296 .291

h/t to Fangraphs and Beyond the Boxscore for the xBABIP calculator

The batted ball data tells us that we shouldn’t expect quite that much regression. The key is that he’s hitting fewer line drives than he has in any season since his debut in 2009. As anyone will tell you, line drives are more likely to turn into hits than ground balls or fly balls. His 13.6% rate this season is 4.2% below his career rate, which means that his Expected BABIP (xBABIP) is lower than it has been in previous seasons. His .296 xBABIP is still higher than his current .291 (actual) BABIP, but he hasn’t hit into a significant amount of bad luck. He needs to start squaring the ball up and making more line drive contact if he wants this to change.

Desmond is hitting a lot more ground balls and a few more fly balls than he has in the past. The HR/FB rate is kind of a double-edged sword.  17.9% of the fly balls Desmond has hit so far this season have left the yard. The plus is that this isn’t an egregiously high number for an elite power hitter. The negative is that it’s 5.6% higher than his career figure and 5.0% higher than his HR/FB rate was last season. There could be some regression coming, but it’s actually a touch lower than his 2012 HR/FB rate, so that’s not a certainty.

Conclusion

Desmond’s season hasn’t been that hard to figure. Statistical data can tell us where he’s been successful and where he’s struggled.  The simple narrative that he’s sacrificing contact for power fits pretty much across the board. He’s trying to be more patient and getting his pitch (career high 3.83 P/PA… less first pitch swings). He’s hitting more fly balls than ever before (36.6%), which are the most likely type of batted ball to become a home run. Even the uptick in ground balls could be explained away as him just getting on top of the ball more often and driving it into the ground.

This is leading to a career worst strikeout percentage. The main thing is that he never really shortens his swing.  While this figures to lead to a higher degree of success when he does make contact, it also lowers his chances of connecting. Taking more pitches early in counts and running deeper counts would naturally make him more susceptible to two strike counts, which also helps lead to (you got it) more strikeouts.

It’s possible that Desmond has taken it upon himself to try and carry the offense through the many injuries they’ve suffered this season. As a team, it has felt like the Nationals have struggled to score runs for much of the season.

A look at the big picture provides a slightly different answer. The Nationals are 8th in the NL (19th in MLB) with 324 runs scored.  Both figures place them in the middle of the pack. Perhaps the return of Harper, as well as Ramos and Zimmerman continuing to settle back in, will relieve some of the pressure on Desmond and he’ll start showing more of a focus on consistently making (solid… or more, in general) contact rather than trying to hit a Home Run every time.

Either way, there’s been a lot of talk this season about how the Nats can’t trust the seventh and eighth hitters to put the ball in play or get a run home from third with less than two outs. Their sixth hitter with the 29.5% strikeout rate isn’t helping as much as he has in the past either. With Espinosa likely ticketed for the bench more often when Harper returns, Desmond figures to be the biggest threat to break Espinosa’s record for strikeouts in a season by a middle infielder. Let’s hope he turns things around.

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