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What to make of Ian Desmond’s first three years in Colorado—and how he can still provide value

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Even when Desmond’s numbers have been at their worst during his time with the Rockies, he has still mashed left-handed pitching.

Let’s go back to that fateful day in December 2016. The Winter Meetings were well underway, and the Colorado Rockies figured it was the right time to go all in on being contenders. Ian Desmond was coming off a season with the Texas Rangers that saw him produce a batting line of .285/.335/.446 while playing capable center field defense. Desmond also stole 21 bases in 2016 and the Rockies felt his combination of talents were worth a five-year, $70 million contract. Rockies General Manager Jeff Bridich spoke highly of Desmond’s versatility in his introductory press conference, noting that he would primarily play first base—a position where he had no experience.

We all know how Desmond’s first three years in Colorado have turned out. Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and Baseball Reference rated him as worth -1.2, -1.7 and -3.4 Wins Above Replacement, respectively. He has hit .252/.313/.429 during his time in Colorado, good for an OPS+ of 82. His ground-ball percentage skyrocketed, with a mark of 62.3% from 2017-18 that was the highest in baseball (not particularly conducive for success in the confines of Coors Field). The first base experiment did not work well, as Desmond was worth -7 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) at the position. After the signing of Daniel Murphy prior to the 2019 season, the Rockies moved Desmond to center field, where the 33-year-old produced -19 DRS. Eventually, they shifted Desmond to left field, where he was credited with an even 0 DRS.

There are those who point to Desmond’s counting stats as a means of saying he actually has been valuable to the team. He has hit 20 home runs in each of the past two seasons and even had a 20 homer/20 stolen base campaign in 2018. His 88 runs batted in in 2018 were also an above average number.

Overall, however, it is very difficult to look at the overall body of work and come away with the idea of Desmond being worth the amount of money he was given.

You’ll notice that the above reference to ground-ball rate didn’t include the 2019 season—and that’s because that and some of his other peripheral batting statistics were better in 2019. As Eric Garcia McKinley wrote in Desmond’s Ranking the Rockies profile, Desmond also got better in terms of exit velocity, hard hit rate and xwOBA. The results didn’t necessarily follow. Desmond’s DRC+ of 86 was actually four points lower than 2018. It should be noted that Desmond did make strides in terms of hitting at Coors Field in 2019, to the tune of a 105 OPS+. Hitting at home (in what we all know to be a very hitter-friendly park) was something he had a terrible time of doing in 2017 (56 OPS+) and 2018 (79 OPS+).

Desmond is still guaranteed $15 million in 2020 and $8 million in 2021. He also has a $15 million club option for the 2022 season.

What’s to be done? It doesn’t seem especially likely that the Rockies can trade Desmond. Few teams would be interested in an aging player with the numbers he has put up over the past three seasons. He still appears to be a fan favorite among fans of the Washington Nationals and Texas Rangers, as judged by the ovations he gets when the Rockies play in their stadiums.

By all accounts, Desmond is a very charitable human being. Vanessa Hughes of Mile High Sports published an article at the beginning of the 2018 season about Desmond’s efforts in the community, which ranged from raising funds to finding a cure for neurofibromatosis, organizing an equipment drive to help the Salt River Maricopa Indian Community, reaching out to the Denver Islamic Society and simply his frequent efforts to sign bats for young fans at the ballpark.

When it comes to fans of the Nationals and Rangers, though, the main difference with how he is perceived by fans in Colorado is probably that he simply never put up a negative WAR season with those teams.

There is, however, a way that Desmond can be a productive member of the Rockies in 2020 (and perhaps beyond).

Even when Desmond’s numbers have been at their worst during his time with the Rox, he has still mashed left-handed pitching.

In his career, Desmond has a 110 wRC+ against southpaws. Since joining the Rockies, he has been just as good to better. His slash of .297/.350/.626 against lefties in 2019 resulted in a 132 wRC+.

Charlie Blackmon and David Dahl have cemented themselves as everyday players in the outfield. It may be unwise to bank on Sam Hilliard continuing to tear apart the league as he did in September, but he has earned regular playing time—at the very least, against right-handed pitching. Desmond factoring into the mix against southpaws could allow him to be a part of one of the best-hitting outfields in baseball.

Desmond should certainly not ever find himself playing center field again, and it looks as though the Rockies have conceded defeat on their attempts to run him out there in 2019. From here on out, he should only be seen in left field or ***maybe*** at first base to supplement Murphy at times (though Murphy was also strangely better against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching in his first year in Colorado).

If Desmond is solely used as a starter against left-handed pitching and as a pinch-hitter in home games, he could provide positive value to the Rockies yet.