The struggles of Desmond, who entered play on Friday with a sub-.300 on-base percentage and an OPS+ of 65, aren’t exactly unprecedented. During the final two months of last season as a member of Texas Rangers, he hit just .249/.297/.305. The year before that, while still with the Washington Nationals, he posted a .233/.290/.384 line.
But Desmond has had several things working against him during his brief time with the Rockies, and once those things normalize, there’s a strong chance he’ll be a prime candidate for an in-season bounceback.
Changing positions is hard
This is the second time in as many seasons that Desmond has undergone a major position change. We’re not just talking about moving from shortstop to second base or from one corner outfield spot to another. Desmond has gone from shortstop to center field to first base in a span of three seasons, and all that time spent learning the nuances of a new spot on the field can take away from one’s ability to consistently hit.
It can be guaranteed that nobody will ever hear Desmond use this as an excuse, but we’ve seen it time and time again. In fact, you don’t even have to look outside of the organization; highly touted prospects Ryan McMahon and Forrest Wall dealt with it last season in the minors. Outside of the org, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Brad Miller this season has seen a 30-point drop in OPS+ after a switch to second base. Boston Red Sox slugger Hanley Ramirez struggled amid a move from shortstop to the outfield in 2015, though he admittedly thrived upon moving to first base the following season.
The point is, picking up an entirely new position can have undesired consequences when it comes to a player’s offensive performance. Desmond has experienced that as much as anyone over the last couple of seasons. It matters.
Hand injuries affect hitting
Not everyone can be Troy Tulowitzki, who bounced back from a broken hand in 2010 to hit .341/.403/.508 in his first 144 plate appearances after the injury.
That seemingly arbitrary number of PAs was used because entering Friday, Desmond has made 147 trips to the plate since returning from his stint on the disabled list as a result of the injury, hitting .266/.295/.374. A couple of other players who have suffered broken hands in recent years had just as hard of a time bouncing back:
Alex Rios, 2015: .219/.264/.270 in 148 PA after injury (.268/.295/.391 through rest of season)
Alex Gordon, 2016: .185/.284/.323 in 148 PA after injury (.254/.328/.462 through rest of season)
Kevin Kiermaier, 2016: .203/.306/.313 in 147 PA after injury (.304/.385/.478 through rest of season)
Admittedly, there is a short list of players—Tyler Flowers and C.J. Cron come to mind—who have actually performed better after returning from a broken hand. But the thing the three players above have in common with Desmond is their injuries took place early in the season—in April or May, to be exact, whereas Flowers and Cron had a lot more plate appearances under the belts by the time their ailments struck in July and August. It can be hard enough for major leaguers to produce early in the year; adding an injury that affects offense to the equation only makes it that much more difficult.
The “bad first year of a contract” trend?
In 2012, Michael Cuddyer hit just .260/.317/.489 in the first year of a three-year deal with the Rockies before going on to produce a .331/.385/.543 line during the remainder of his contract. In 2016, Gerardo Parra one-upped Cuddy by posting a miserable .253/.271/.399 line but has improved so far this season, albeit on the heels of an unsustainable hot streak.
Both of those players, like Desmond, dealt with injuries in the first year of their deals, but it could also be that both players had a tough time adjusting to the toll that playing in Colorado can take on a player’s body. That, along with other reasons such as dead salary still being on the books, could be why the Rockies negotiated Desmond’s contract to where he’d make only $8 million during the first year. The club might have anticipated a slow start to his Rockies career and is banking on a rebound, structuring his salary as such.
Really, what all of this boils down to is nobody’s totally wrong. Imagine that!
The Rockies right now are essentially paying Desmond a heap of money to be a strong clubhouse presence and team leader—something that has value, sure, but probably isn’t worth $70 million. But he’s only 147 plate appearances into his Colorado career, and he has the track record of being a slightly above league-average player. Guys like that—Cuddyer, for instance—have often translated into strong assets for the Rockies.
With the Rockies sitting pretty at 40-23 and with unexpected injuries having already affected the roster, Desmond’s issues are pretty inconsequential at least for this year. The bigger picture may play out differently, but predicting that at this point will only cause grief and pain. The Rockies are in first place and are playing some of the best baseball they’ve ever played, so why would we want that?