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Rockies’ Ian Desmond was a good hitter in May

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Has Desmond turned a corner?

About a month ago we published an article arguing the case for the Rockies to part ways with Ian Desmond for good. That case got a little stronger when the Boston Red Sox DFA’d their expensive (owed $22 million this year with an option for 2019 that was about to vest), underperforming (90 wRC+ in 2018) first baseman, Hanley Ramirez. Perhaps the Rockies would be willing to do the same thing, even though Desmond is owed more ($22 million in 2018, $38 million over the next three years) because he has performed much worse over the life of his contract (69 wRC+ last year, 33 wRC+ this year as of that writing).

But that case has also gotten a bit weaker because Ian Desmond has decided to hit.

Ian Desmond 2018

Time Frame PA HR SB BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Time Frame PA HR SB BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Through May 3 112 4 3 4.5% 24.1% 0.189 0.173 0.223 0.327 33
Since May 4 98 5 3 6.1% 27.6% 0.254 0.222 0.276 0.456 79
Overall 210 9 6 5.2% 25.7% 0.218 0.196 0.248 0.387 53
Through May 31, 2018 FanGraphs

I’ll admit that a 79 wRC+ doesn’t look all that impressive on its own. But considering it’s the best Ian Desmond has been in a Rockies uniform over a calendar month (save for a 103 wRC+ in 31 plate appearances last July), it’s worth something. After seeing the performance that put up 33 wRC+ over the first month plus of the season, I’m sure most Rockies fans would take a 79 wRC+ for the rest of the season.

Two weeks ago it didn’t seem possible that Ian Desmond would be able to do much more than occasionally smack a home run in the midst of a tidal wave of groundballs to the middle infielders. In fact, two weeks ago Ian Desmond’s wRC+ was lower than it was on May 4. So what if I told you Ian Desmond has been an above average hitter over the last two weeks?

Ian Desmond, last 14 days

Time Frame PA HR SB BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Time Frame PA HR SB BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Since May 17 55 3 3 9.1% 18.2% 0.278 0.271 0.345 0.500 113
Overall 210 9 6 5.2% 25.7% 0.218 0.196 0.248 0.387 53
Through May 31, 2018 FanGraphs

This level of sustained performance—even though it’s still well within the “small sample size” range of 14 days—did not seem possible two weeks ago. Obviously it helps that Desmond has cut down on his strikeouts and has increased his number of walks. But what’s with that big jump in slugging percentage?

Ian Desmond Batted Ball, 2018

Player LD% GB% FB% Pull% Center% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
Player LD% GB% FB% Pull% Center% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
Through May 17 15.0% 65.4% 19.6% 22.4% 51.4% 26.2% 26.2% 37.4% 36.4%
Since May 17 17.9% 66.7% 15.4% 48.7% 30.8% 20.5% 17.9% 56.4% 25.6%
League Avg 20.8% 43.5% 35.7% 40.4% 33.7% 26.0% 18.7% 47.3% 34.1%
Through May 31, 2018 FanGraphs

While his groundball and flyball rates still remain firmly out of whack, there are two significant changes. The first is obvious and makes the most sense: he’s generating much better contact. While Desmond still isn’t generating much hard contact per se, the increased quality of contact is probably a good indicator of a better approach. Surely this accounts for most of the success he’s had in the latter half of May.

The other change presents almost as many questions as answers. Over the last two weeks, he’s pulling the ball a lot more, up from 22.7% to 48.7%, exceeding league average. Pulling the ball is usually the easiest way for a hitter to tap into his power but, for whatever reason, Desmond hasn’t been able to do that much in 2018. But consider where he’s pulling the ball.

FanGraphs

There’s nothing wrong with your screen (view original charts here); opposing teams could have gotten away without a left fielder during Desmond’s at bats this season. When he does pull the ball, it’s not making it out of the infield or, at best out of reach of the center fielder. Compare that to DJ “Inside Out Swing” LeMahieu for a minute and you can see that this goes beyond a simple “opposite field approach.”

Ian Desmond has been famously tinkering with his swing all season. But despite a recent hot streak that is likely fueled by an increase in quality of contact, there still seems to be an issue. Hitting just one flyball and three line drives to the pull side two full months into the season is a concerning trend. It’s a red flag that puts a bit of a damper on what he’s done this month, and especially over the last two weeks that could reveal it to be an illusion, a string of sevens at the craps table.

Or it could be nothing; Desmond could continue being May Desmond for the rest of the season and though he’d finish well below what you’d like to see out of a first baseman (especially one making $22 million), it would at least be more palatable.

I know which one I would prefer. But I also know which one I expect.