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Washington Nationals Ian Desmond wears yet another golden hat

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Just when it looked like Ian Desmond's bat was finally starting to show some signs of life, he struck out in all four of his plate appearances on Tuesday. It was the fourth time this season that Desmond has worn the Golden Sombrero.

Ian Desmond wore his fourth golden sombrero of the season in Tuesday's 6-1 win. He'd done that just six times in his career prior to this season.
Ian Desmond wore his fourth golden sombrero of the season in Tuesday's 6-1 win. He'd done that just six times in his career prior to this season.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond has struggled with every aspect of his game this season.  His defensive production has dropped off a cliff.  His Isolated Power is down more than forty points from where it was in the past two seasons.  He's walked in fewer of his plate appearances (4.8%) than he has in any season in the major leagues.  We may examine some of Desmond's other issues some time in the near future, though.  Today, let's focus on his contact struggles.

Desmond struck out in all four of his plate appearances on Tuesday, earning himself the dreaded golden sombrero.  This was the tenth time in Desmond's career that he's struck out four times in a ballgame.  Two of them happened last season.  He's now done so four times in 2015.  He did so once each season from 2009-2012 to account for the other four.

Per Baseball Reference's Play Index, Desmond's four golden sombreros tie him with Chris Davis for the major league lead.  In a curious and potentially systemic twist, there are five players who have three or more golden sombreros this season.  Two of the other three (Steven Souza and Derek Norris with three each) are former Nats farmhands.  The other is Rangers rookie Joey Gallo, who has only played in 25 games this season.

After Tuesday's performance, Desmond's 28.2% strikeout rate in 2015 is identical to his career worst (by 6.1%) strikeout rate from last season.  It was an awful lot easier to deal with that high strikeout rate last year when he was playing better defense, hitting for more power, stealing more bases, and even drawing the occasional walk.  Unfortunately, he's stopped doing everything he does well as frequently as he had in the past while maintaining the increased strikeout rate.

Let's see if we can identify why Desmond has been struggling so badly with contact this season......

Plate discipline numbers

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% 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% 10.2%
2011 30.8% 61.3% 45.3% 66.8% 89.7% 81.5% 47.6% 61.2% 8.3%
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 34.6% 68.6% 50.0% 53.7% 83.4% 72.1% 45.2% 63.1% 13.8%
2015 38.2% 70.5% 52.8% 60.6% 87.8% 77.0% 45.2% 71.7% 11.9%

Desmond has never really been a very disciplined hitter, but he's gotten by despite his aggression in the past.  This season, his chase percentage of 38.2% is a career worst, but it's really not that much higher than it was in 2012, when Desmond broke out with a .292/.335/.511 campaign.  It's difficult to pin it on Desmond struggling to make contact on swings, since his Contact% is higher and his Swinging Strike% is lower than it's been in either of the past two seasons.

The first strike percentage may be something to keep an eye on.  Desmond has always been known as an aggressive hitter early in the count, but he's finding himself behind in the count more often than ever so far in 2015.  His 71.7% first strike percentage isn't only a career high, but it's also the highest in the majors by 1.5%.  Some of this may be because pitchers aren't afraid to attack the zone against him right now.  Some of it is surely because of his aggressive nature and his proclivity to swing for the downs at the first pitch... regardless of where it's thrown.

Like most hitters, Desmond struggles when behind in the count.  If he doesn't crush that first pitch and falls behind (again, highest percentage in the league so far this season), he becomes a far less dangerous hitter.  How much less dangerous?

Split PA BA OBP SLG OPS HR tOPS+
Batter Ahead 967 .290 .441 .493 .934 32 157
Pitcher Ahead 1207 .217 .225 .340 .565 27 52

tOPS+ ties into Desmond's OPS rather than the league average.  When his plate appearance ends with him ahead in the count, his OPS is 57% better than his total OPS.  When it ends with him behind in the count, it's only 52% as good as his total OPS.  Since he's seeing first pitch strikes (and/or by chasing more often to put him behind in the count) as often as he has this season, Desmond isn't being put into great situations to succeed.  It's difficult to say how much of this is his own doing, but that career high O-Swing% can't be helping him here.

Pitch values

Season wFB wSL wCT wCB wCH wSF wKN
2009 -1.9 -1.1 -0.2 4.1 1.8
2010 3.3 -8.8 -2.0 3.9 2.9 0.5 -0.8
2011 -4.0 1.5 -1.0 -1.6 -3.2 -1.4 -0.2
2012 10.4 2.5 4.6 2.5 -1.5 -1.1 0.0
2013 -8.3 7.4 3.4 -2.8 11.3 -2.5
2014 4.5 -3.5 0.6 -2.2 5.3 -0.9
2015 0.8 -0.5 1.6 -1.0 -5.0 -0.7

0.2

My main takeaways here.....

  • Desmond isn't exactly crushing fastballs, but he's gotten away with that at times in the past.
  • His performance against the slider has really gone in the tank the past two years.  His chase rate against breaking balls seems to be exceptionally high.
  • Desmond really killed the changeup the past two years, but he's been brutal against that pitch so far in 2015.

Maybe Desmond's pitch recognition has taken a bit of a hit in 2015?  It's possible he's not identifying breaking balls as well as he did from 2011-2013.  It's possible he's not seeing the spin on the changeup and is getting out in front a little too often.  Let's see what Brooks Baseball has to say on their player card......

Against All Fastballs (684 seen), he has had a league average eye (0.92 d'; 72% swing rate at pitches in the zone vs. 37% swing rate at pitches out of the zone) and a very aggressive approach at the plate (-0.12 c) with an above average likelihood to swing and miss (21% whiff/swing).

Against Breaking Pitches (320 seen), he has had an exceptionally poor eye (0.26 d'; 65% swing rate at pitches in the zone vs. 55% swing rate at pitches out of the zone) andan exceptionally aggressive approach at the plate (-0.26 c) with a league average likelihood to swing and miss (33% whiff/swing).

Against Offspeed Pitches (96 seen), he has had an exceptionally poor eye (0.03 d'; 100% swing rate at pitches in the zone vs. 49% swing rate at pitches out of the zone) anda very patient approach at the plate (0.02 c) with a league average likelihood to swing and miss (30% whiff/swing).

The exceptionally poor eye comments about his performance against breaking balls and offspeed pitches are troubling.  The fact that he's swinging at just 65% of breaking balls in the zone and a whopping 55% of breaking balls outside of the zone is kind of terrifying.

Of course, Desmond's plate approach has never been his strong suit.  It's doubtful that he's ever going to become that hitter that spits on everything out of the zone and dictates at bats by running deep counts.  He's most reliant on his bat speed, his power, and his aggression when he sees something in the happy zone.  As he ages, the two physical aspects mentioned in that last sentence figure to decline.  We may be seeing the beginning of that decline already.

It's possible that Desmond turns things around in the next few months. He's gone through prolonged stretches where he's struggled and turned it around in the past.  The contact problem seems to be an issue that keeps getting worse, though.  As his physical tools start to erode (assuming that isn't the issue already) with age in the next few years, it looks like he's going to have to find ways to improve his approach at the plate in order to resume being the caliber of player he was from 2012-2014.