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The Rockies and Ian Desmond: The case to DFA

The Rockies cannot afford to give away games with a sub-optimal lineup strategy anymore

Playing baseball is hard. Something about taking a round bat and trying to hit a round ball squarely reminds you that you hated geometry. And remembering that even the most rotund relief pitcher can probably beat you in a footrace urges you to exercise more.

Being a professional baseball player is even harder; being a well-paid professional baseball player just may be the hardest of all. There is all kinds of focus on you and you’re just trying to hit the ball and get through life without causing too much damage. The least you can do is treat everyone around you with respect, regardless of how big your paycheck is.

Being a well-paid professional baseball player in a slump at the plate is surely one of the loneliest feelings in sports. If you’re in that situation on a team that is trying to contend, that loneliness can feel like despair. It's an untenable position for everyone.

The Ian Desmond situation is close to untenable for the Colorado Rockies, a team that is in the middle of a contention cycle. The time may have already come to cut ties with the 32-year old player.

Some people may read this and imagine us gleefully catching the Rockies in a bad situation, but this isn’t an argument about being right or wrong about the signing. It’s about what really may be the best thing for the success of the team. The fact is Desmond’s performance has been so poor it has become hard to justify keeping him irrespective of his $22 million paycheck this year.

Ian Desmond 2018

Ian Desmond 112 4 3 4.5% 24.1% 0.189 0.173 0.223 0.327 33
League Average -- -- -- 9.0% 22.7% 0.294 0.244 0.318 0.400 97
Stats as of May 2, 2018 FanGraphs

By all accounts, Desmond is a fantastic teammate. Anyone who has ever played with him speaks glowingly about his presence in the clubhouse and that, in part, was why the Rockies seemed willing to give him his big contract. His first year in Denver was a bit of a train wreck: a .274/.326/.375 line with a very not nice 69 wRC+ and -0.9 fWAR. However, he played a career-low 95 games and it was reasonable to assume that injuries played a major role in his lack of success and a bounce back was imminent.

There has been no such bounce back and excuses are now running short. In the most expensive year of his five-year, $70 million contract, Desmond has been the worst everyday player in Major League Baseball so far (-0.7 fWAR). And while the Rockies wait for him to figure it out, the lineup is being anchored down by his bat, and the roster is handcuffed without capable replacements.

It’s easy to look at Desmond’s numbers above and consider a few statistical red flags that should signal he’s due for a regression up to the mean. “Nobody carries a .189 BABIP all season! Surely he will improve soon, he just needs time to figure it out.” Unfortunately, there is nothing in his batted ball profile that would suggest Ian has somehow been “unlucky.”

Ian Desmond 2018 Batted Ball Profile

Player LD% GB% FB% Pull% Center% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
Player LD% GB% FB% Pull% Center% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
Ian Desmond 10.3% 73.1% 16.7% 23.1% 51.3% 25.6% 28.2% 39.7% 32.1%
League Average 20.8% 43.5% 35.7% 40.4% 33.7% 26.0% 18.7% 47.3% 34.1%
Stats as of May 2, 2018 FanGraphs

Those groundball rates should come with a parental advisory warning. And while they are extreme enough in their own right, they also come in an era where players are putting the ball in the air (and into the seats) at record rates. What’s more, they come from a player who plays his home games at Coors Field, where line drives and fly balls are rewarded even more than they would be elsewhere.

Consider this: Desmond hits the ball on the ground 73.1% of the time. He hits the ball up the middle 51.3% of the time, and 67.1% of the time it’s not hit hard. That means 25.1% of balls he hits are ground balls, up the middle, hit weakly or medium. That doesn’t exactly scream “regression” for that .189 BABIP.

Perhaps you prefer shiny new tools like Statcast and want to know what launch angles and exit velocity say. Using Expected Statistics, which strips the contextual outcomes away from a hit (like ballpark and defense) and instead uses quality and amount of contact, Desmond’s .173 batting average would be expected to be...a .187 average. His .327 slugging percentage “should be” a .344 slugging, and his weighted on-base average (a catch-all stat where .309 is average), would go up from .237 to .254. Compare this to struggling Phillies first baseman Carlos Santana, who would see his numbers improve from .156 to .254 batting average, .287 to .493 slugging, and .273 to .390 wOBA.

In other words, it really has been that bad. And while he’s not the only Rockies hitter that’s been struggling in the early going of 2018, the depth of his struggles, coupled with his near constant lineup presence, is doing the offense no favors. Look no further than Monday night, when Desmond stepped to the plate down a run in the ninth inning with a man on first. What did he do? Exactly what he does a quarter of the time: he hit a weak ground ball up the middle. A bad throw from the pitcher to second was the only thing that prevented a double play from ending the game.

To make matters worse, Desmond doesn’t have a natural position on the diamond. But he has made 18 appearances at first base, 11 in left field, and two in center, all positions he had almost no experience playing before 2016. And yet, only Trevor Story has appeared in more games for the Rockies this season. Injuries and suspensions have played a major role in this, yet Wednesday was only the second game in which Desmond didn’t make an appearance this season.

Desmond’s constant presence in the lineup cost Ryan McMahon a chance to get regular playing time at the big league level. While he didn’t look good in his limited appearances, one has to wonder what it would’ve taken for him to get the opportunity to prove himself over a large sample of at-bats if Bud Black insists on playing a veteran so clearly struggling as Desmond has.

When a player is actively costing your team runs at the plate and in the field, and his presence makes the roster hard to manage on a day-to-day basis, and he is blocking a top prospect, that player is usually moved. Because Desmond is still owed $62 million from 2018 to 2022, he is a very difficult player to trade.

Mark Kiszla suggested on Thursday that the Rockies deploy Desmond as a super utility player all over the field. The problem with this plan is twofold: first, it overstates his ability to play any position above a league average rate. Second, Kizla advocates Black "keep writing his name on the lineup card."

That is a half measure, at best. Desmond's time has run out. The only way to remedy this situation is to cut him from the 25-man roster completely by designating him for assignment. The money is already spent and it’s not coming back, so it’s no use to try and squeeze positive value out of the investment if the player is detracting from your pursuit of the playoffs.

It may not be a popular decision to lose a clubhouse presence that brings what Ian brings. But at some point even the most crucial clubhouse presence needs to perform on the field to be a net positive for the team. Desmond’s performance seems to have passed that point.

Unfortunately, there’s almost zero chance that happens. With so much invested in Desmond, the team would just as soon find a phantom injury than eat $60 million plus. Front offices are loathe to consider a player’s contract, even an albatross like Desmond’s, as a sunk cost for a few reasons.

The primary one is that Ian Desmond is a person, not a used car with a bad transmission or a stock that only has a quarter of its original value. It’s much more difficult to completely write off a player and eat a large contract (unless, of course, there are other issues to consider) than it is an inanimate object. It’s even harder when the player in question is genuinely popular with the staff, the clubhouse, and, apparently, even the media.

The fact is that the Rockies, despite major offensive struggles, still find themselves very much in the hunt for the National League playoffs. With the Dodgers losing Corey Seager for the year, there’s even an opportunity to grab the franchise’s first division crown.

The question is now this: how does Bud Black find a role for Ian Desmond in which he can actually positively contribute? It’s pretty obvious that it no longer makes sense for Desmond to be an everyday player. However, despite all the obvious struggles above, he is miraculously still hitting .300/.378/.575 in 45 plate appearances against lefties. Numbers like that warrant playing him as the weak-side of a platoon.

Carlos Gonzalez is displaying platoon splits on the other side of the plate (.214/.241/.214 against lefties, .244/.271/.533 against righties). Pair them together and have David Dahl switch between left field and right field, depending on who is playing between Desmond and CarGo. Finally, call up Ryan McMahon and give him the first base job until he loses it or a replacement can be found on the trade market.

This isn't far off of Kizla's plan, but it takes Desmond's worst qualities out of the lineup rather than running him out there everyday expecting different results. Consider this an intermediate measure — one last stop before the Rockies have to make the hard decision of cutting ties with an expensive, popular, but potentially fully declined player. If the Rockies want to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history, they will have to start making these hard decisions soon. They cannot afford to give away playing time and space on the field anymore.