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What changed to make Ian Desmond one of the Rockies’ best hitters

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He’s hitting the ball in the air more and seems to be finding his stride

PHOENIX — Ian Desmond has been subject to the wrath and at the butt of jokes from many Rockies fans since he was signed in 2017 as a converted first baseman. During his first two years in a Rockies uniform, Desmond did not perform well, hitting poorly and with a ground ball rate over 60% both years.

However, something has clicked so far in 2019, and Ian Desmond has become one of the Rockies’ best hitters. Per Fangraphs, his ground ball rate is now down to 45.2% — his lowest since 2013 — and his fly ball rate is up to 30% — the highest since his time in Washington. He even acknowledged that the balls are flying more, but didn’t cite any major changes that he’s made to get those different results.

“Obviously I’m doing something different because the balls are going in the air, but I just feel comfortable first and foremost,” Desmond said, “I think just getting acclimated to a new team took me longer than I expected and new positions. Having [hitting coach] Dave Magadan here has been a big help for me. I started letting go of my top hand release and that’s been helpful — something I’ve worked on for a long time and was never really able to transfer into the game and now it is. But mostly... it’s kind of a result of just playing. Sometimes you have good years and sometimes you have bad years.”

Ian Desmond GB/FB Stats

Year GB% FB%
Year GB% FB%
2009 (WSH) 54.4% 33.8%
2010 (WSH) 52.7% 31.6%
2011 (WSH) 51.9% 30.5%
2012 (WSH) 47.6% 34.5%
2013 (WSH) 43.4% 34.1%
2014 (WSH) 50.1% 32.1%
2015 (WSH) 53.4% 31.0%
2016 (TEX) 53.4% 26.0%
2017 (COL) 62.7% 20.8%
2018 (COL) 62.0% 21.5%
2019 (COL) 45.2% 30.0%

The slight change in his swing seems to be helping — Desmond is hitting .271/.335/.511 with 10 home runs on the young season. As he mentioned, he certainly is hitting the ball more in the air. Since Coors is such a hitters friendly park, being able to hit the ball in the air is certainly helpful.

On top of hitting more fly balls, he is also just hitting the ball harder in general. According to Baseball Savant, Desmond is hitting the ball hard 49.4% of the time, the highest mark since Statcast began recording the stat in 2015. He has an average launch angle of 7.5 degrees and an average exit velocity of 92.1 MPH, both also career highs since 2015.

Ian Desmond Statcast Hard Hit Stats

Year Hard Hit % Launch Angle Exit Velocity
Year Hard Hit % Launch Angle Exit Velocity
2015 (WSH) 40.9% 5.1 89.6
2016 (TEX) 43.2% 4.7 90.5
2017 (COL) 30.5% 0.0 87.2
2018 (COL) 43.2% 0.0 89.9
2019 (COL) 49.4% 7.5 92.1

Even though he hasn’t made any major mechanical changes, Desmond said he “spent a lot of time working out this offseason, hard, at a new place.

“I went and got a new trainer. I went to Athletic Edge, a sports performance [center] down in Sarasota [Florida], Lakewood Ranch, and just being in that competitive group again got the juices flowing,” he continued, “I got a pitching machine from an old coach of mine, Dwayne Strong. I put it in my barn and was able to use that as opposed to using the BP pitcher in the offseason, so that was helpful.”

Beyond some new offseason workout routines, he also credits his success to several things, including avoiding injuries. "Being healthy has been huge for me,” he mentioned, “but I think Buddy [Black] is starting to understand my game more.”

This comment is interesting for a number of reasons. For one, last year Desmond seemed to be Black’s “go to guy” regardless of the situation — starting him in 160 out of 162 games. So far this year, Desmond seems to be starting less often, and when he doesn’t, he is being put in situations where he can most help the team. He has made 53 starts this year compared to 68 through June 20 last year. Also, Desmond is playing in the middle of the diamond again, where he had played for most of his career before signing with Colorado. All of this suggests that Black understands Desmond’s previous struggles and is setting him up to be much more successful this year, which has so far panned out.

Desmond continued that “it’s just a lot of little things just adding up...you can’t put your finger on one specific thing, but I’m just playing and the results are coming, you know what I mean? In April it certainly wasn’t that way. I was hitting the ball hard but was getting out and now things are starting to fall. My batting average on balls in play the last few years has been like much lower than it had been in the past, so I kinda felt like it was bound to turn.”

In April this year, Desmond hit .203/.247/.392 with three homers in 24 games. May is where he really took off, hitting .319/.430/.597 with three more homers in 24 more games. As he noted, his BABIP in April was .236, but in May it jumped up to .435.

Along with everything else, Desmond also has cultivated a great relationship with new hitting coach Dave Magadan. He didn’t mention anything specific that Magadan has said that has resonated with him, but said “it’s just good to be able to have communication with him and talk about my plan and my approach and just kinda cross-reference, make sure that what I’m thinking he agrees with. Then we can have a conversation and dialogue, which is always helpful.

“That’s the type of player I am — I want to talk it out.” Desmond said. “I just like talking about it before I put it into action and he’s kind of a good listener I guess you could say. He’s been coaching for a long time so he knows that there’s not just one way and it’s been good. It’s been a really good relationship and I’m glad that he’s here.”

Even beyond hitting, could maybe going back to his more natural position on the diamond have something to do with his success?

“Possibly,” he said, “I mean, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be a good first baseman when I was playing there. It was obviously a position that I’d never played before in my life and doing it at the big league level with Spring Training basically to practice was tough. I really felt like I needed to be focused on that so that I could be ready for Nolan [Arenado]. I wanted to protect his game — and Trevor [Story] also, DJ [LeMahieu]. Those guys are all so good at what they do that I didn’t want to be a drawback to them, so I put a lot of focus on that in the offseason and probably took a back seat to hitting a little bit. But center field has been nice to be able to watch and see things in action from the middle of the diamond and try to get back into that like, quarterback seat a little bit, which is good.”

The results speak for themselves — Ian Desmond is in the midst of his best year in purple. Maybe it’s because it’s his third year with the team; maybe it’s a new hitting coach; or maybe it’s being shifted back to his more natural position. Regardless, let’s hope this resurgence continues and we can continue referring to him as “going for the jugular” at the plate.