It's not news that Ian Desmond struggles defensively in April. We've come to expect that he has a tendency to start slowly with the glove, but we've never seen him play this poorly defensively early in the season. In the third inning of Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Phillies, Desmond committed yet another error. The Phillies went on to score two unearned runs because of that error and another play by Desmond that wasn't an error because you can't assume the double play. Both were pretty routine plays. Those two unearned runs ended up being the difference in the game.
That's been the story of the first two weeks of the season for Desmond. He's committed eight errors in just twelve games so far this season. The Nats are 5-7 thus far, and no fewer than four of those losses have ended up seeing crucial runs that proved to be the difference score because of a Desmond error....
- The Nats lost 3-1 on Opening Day. Desmond had an error on a popup with two outs in the sixth inning that prolonged the inning. The very next batter broke up Max Scherzer's no-hitter with a two run single. Desmond threw one away the next inning that allowed Juan Lagares to reach in front of Travis d'Arnaud's triple and score the third run.
- He had an error on a routine grounder in the third game of the season that spurred a four run rally for the Mets in a 6-3 loss.
- He had an error in Tuesday's 8-7 loss to the Red Sox which kicked off a three run seventh inning. He also compounded the error by not going home on a ball hit right at him with the infield in that allowed the winning run to score.
- He bobbled a routine chopper off the bat of Phillies' pitcher Aaron Harang Saturday that allowed him to reach. After two hits behind the error, Chase Utley hit an easy double play ball to Dan Uggla at second base who gave Desmond a perfect feed. Desmond botched the transfer, allowing a second unearned run to score.
As I said at the top, Desmond has a history of struggling with the glove in April, so many are giving him a pass. If you listen to the MASN broadcasts, Bob and F.P. keep talking about how he'll make eight errors in April and eight the rest of the way. Some in the fanbase have cried out that Desmond should be benched/sent to the minors (seriously???) for the rest of the month until he gets his head screwed on straight and starts getting out of his own way.
Is Ian Desmond really a great defensive shortstop?
No.... To be honest, he's not even a good defensive shortstop. The narrative that we always hear is that Desmond is an excellent defensive shortstop who starts slow with the glove. The reality is that Desmond is a slightly below average defender who (still) always starts slow with the glove. Let's take a look at some of his defensive metrics over the course of his career....
Those numbers are less than spectacular. Desmond has provided the Nats with -23 Defensive Runs Saved (or about -4 per season) in his career. The only season where he was positive was last season. Last season, Desmond finished ninth among (22) qualified shortstops in DRS. This is the only time in his career in which he's finished better than fifteenth. We can get fooled a bit by his Defensive Runs Above Average. Even some bad shortstops finish with positive numbers there because shortstop is the second most important (non-pitching) position on the defensive spectrum, which means they get a positional boost.
He has a strong arm and above average range for his position, but errors are something that have plagued him for his entire career. Desmond has ranked either first or second in the NL in errors from the shortstop position in four of the past five seasons. We can come up with a couple of reasons Desmond makes more errors than the average shortstop....
- That plus range. Desmond has been about +2 Runs above average per season with his range per season over the course of his career. This means he gets to more balls, so there's going to be the occasional play that would be a hit if, say, Derek Jeter were the SS that ends up being an error because Desmond got to it and couldn't convert an out.
- His durability. With the exception of 2012, Desmond has played in 154 games or more in each of the past five seasons. There simply aren't many other shortstops who have that kind of track record when it comes to staying on the field. More games means more chances... more chances will usually mean more errors.
What we've seen so far this season is that Desmond isn't making a lot of errors that can be blamed on his range. Most rookie ball shortstops have no problem fielding the Harang chopper on Saturday. Most little leaguers don't call off Dan Uggla on a popup where Desmond was probably the third most likely player to catch the ball (Uggla, Michael Taylor) and then drop it. Desmond is taking a lot of routine outs and turning them into baserunners right now, constantly putting the pitching staff in a hole and costing the Nats ballgames.
What can he do?
Get out of his head. There's an old closer's adage about how they need to put a rough outing behind them and wipe the slate clean the next day. Once something has happened, it's over. Move on to the next play/chance. Right now, Desi doesn't seem to have that mentality in the field. He looks like he's overthinking things in the field and trying to make a routine play look spectacular to make up for his previous error. By doing so, he's compounding the initial error.
He's doing things such as trying to rush the exchange on a double play ball with a runner with average/slightly above average speed like Chase Utley running down the line. He's thinking when Allen Craig is running (?) from third to home on a grounder hit right at him rather than reacting and just throwing the ball home like he's supposed to do on a ball hit right at him where the infield is playing in. He's worrying about the throw he's going to make when a slow pitcher hits a weak chopper rather than making sure he has the ball first.
What can the Nats do?
I remember calling for them to give him a day off after his Tuesday error(s) ended up allowing the tying and winning runs to score. It's past due, but now the Nats are in a situation where I'm not sure they can give him that day to clear his head. Yunel Escobar is hurting, which means that the Nats are a man short on the infield already. If Escobar is ready to go on Sunday, Matt Williams should give Desi the day off (followed by Monday's off day) to let him try and clear his head. Desmond needs something to get him out of this defensive funk, and letting him try to play his way through it just doesn't seem to be working.
There's no reason to think that Ian Desmond can't return to being the slightly below average defensive shortstop that he's been his entire career. I'm tired of hearing the "April Desi" excuse, though. Despite his April issues in the past, there's no reason that he should continue to turn routine plays into baserunners. He needs to get out of his head and get out of his own way.