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Ian Desmond is swinging less and walking more, but it’s not all good news for the Rockies

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What’s behind Ian Desmond’s excellent June

One of the massive concerns in the first half of the season for the Rockies has been the tepid offense. A main component of that power outage is Ian Desmond, who started his 2018 season with an abysmal showing at the plate. Through the end of May, Ian Desmond had a slash line of .196/.248/.387, and he was striking out in 25.7% of his plate appearances, while walking only 5.2% of the time. It was bad.

While the horrendous April gave way to improvements in May, a lot of Rockies fans were still unconvinced that Desmond could be a net positive at the plate. But as the rest of the Rockies offense started to heat up in June, so too did Desmond: He slashed .261/.387/.568 during June. The 139-point difference in Desmond’s OBP through the first two months of the season and the third can be tied directly to the number of walks he took in the month, as 17 of his 106 plate appearances (16%) ended in a base on balls. Desmond turned up the power in June as well, hitting 8 home runs and pushing his slugging percentage to .443 on the year.

With Desmond now walking three times as often as he did to start the season, has he become a more patient hitter?

One way to quantify Ian Desmond’s patience as a hitter is to discuss his Swing% (number of swings divided by number of pitches). In 2018, the league as a whole has offered at 46.3% of pitches. From the start of the season through the end of May, Desmond swung at 381 of the 765 pitches he saw, or 49.8%. The heat map below shows the distribution of those pitches through the first two full months of the season.

Figure 1: Swing% heat map for Ian Desmond, start of season through May 31st

Swing% can be split into two categories: swing rate on pitches in the zone (Z-Swing%) and on pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%). While it’s possible to be an excellent hitter with very little plate discipline, hitters are generally more successful when they maximize their Z-Swing% while minimizing their O-Swing%. Through May 31st, Desmond had a Z-Swing% of 74.5% and an O-Swing% of 34.3%. Both of those values are above the league average for 2018 (67.1% and 30.4% respectively), indicating that Desmond had been less patient than the average hitter. Based on the heat map above, Desmond saw a lot of pitches below the knees and away off the plate, which continued into June.

Figure 2: Swing% heat map for Ian Desmond, June 1st through June 30th

In the month of June, Desmond swung at 199 of the 451 pitches he saw, a rate of only 44.1% (a change of -5.7%). Ian has been swinging at fewer pitches both inside the zone (Z-Swing% of 69.7%) and out of the zone (O-Swing% of 30.8%). Pitchers are still attacking Ian below the knees and off the plate, but Desmond has done a better job of laying off of those pitches. The difference in Desmond’s approach to balls away off the plate has particularly improved. In the first two full months of the season, Desmond swung at 25.7% of pitches in those five boxes. In June, Desmond swung at only 12.5% of those pitches.

Ian is being more selective about the pitches he sees, which has led to a higher walk rate, but he’s also swinging at fewer strikes in the process. While most of his strikeouts have been of the swinging variety this season, he’s now starting to strike out looking more often as well. 35.2% of his strikeouts through the end of May were looking, compared to 40.6% in June.

It’s important to note that, even with his improvements in walk rate, Desmond still looks incomplete as a hitter. The results are there, but holes remain in the process. His strikeout rate has been consistently poor this season, and got even worse in June. His June K% of 30.2% is above his season average, so these walks being added are not erasing any strikeouts.

The improvement in walk rate paints a picture of a hitter that’s being more disciplined and laying off of un-hittable pitches off the plate, but he’s also laying off of more strikes and striking out at a greater rate. There are still more steps that Desmond needs to take, but he’s moving in the right direction.