Welcome to the 2019 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at every player to log playing time for the Rockies in 2019. The purpose of this list is to provide a snapshot of the player in context. The “Ranking” is an organizing principle that’s drawn from Baseball Reference’s WAR (rWAR). It’s not something the staff debated. We’ll begin with the player with the lowest rWAR and end up with the player with the highest.
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No. 50, Ian Desmond: -1.6 rWAR
In his first two years as a member of the Colorado Rockies Ian Desmond has been “narrative man.” It has, more or less, played out like this. Desmond plays terribly and people complain about all the playing time he’s getting, then he hits a home run, makes a good catch, or otherwise does something positive on the baseball field, and other people, sometimes even the Rockies Twitter account, come out with a variation of: Well what do you have to say now, wise guys? Fleeting moments are the counternarrative to the evidence-based one.
2019 has been somewhat similar. Desmond began the year as the team’s starting center fielder, which didn’t seem like a good idea, but it’s what the team chose after they decided it was an even worse idea to play him at first base. Midway through the season, the Rockies moved Desmond to left field and installed David Dahl in his place. Rockies management, evidently, came to agree with the pre-season consensus among fans. Even after Dahl’s injury, Bud Black opted for a rotating cast of center fielders rather than move Desmond back to center.
Desmond didn’t make gains at the plate, either. His on-base percentage was almost exactly the same in 2019 as in 2018 — .310, or 150th out of 169 batters with at least 450 plate appearances. Desmond’s slugging percentage improved from .422 to .479, but after adjusting for pretty much everyone having more power in 2019, it wasn’t much of an add. Desmond’s OPS+ in 2019 ended up at 86, whereas in 2018 it was 82. Like 2018, he had two good months of offense.
There are differences though. The narrative for Desmond in 2019 is less of a back and forth between defenders and detractors and more of a conflict in the data. How well he hit in May and June, his two good months, is key to this. Desmond got off to a miserable start this season, hitting .196/.235/.370 in April. All the while, however, he was posting really good peripherals. His hard hit rate was among the best in the league, as was his average exit velocity, he was hitting more line drives, and his xwOBA. It seemed like he was doing all of the process things right, and he just needed to wait for the corresponding results.
And the results came. In May Desmond hit .319/.430/.597, and in June he hit .329/.349/.598. As Purple Row’s Sam Bradfield wrote in June, Desmond was one of the Rockies’ best hitters.
But it didn’t last. Desmond has hit .228/.280/.437 since July 1, which was about 33 percent below league average. In the end his offensive production was just as lacking in 2019 as the previous year, despite the fact that he had peripherals that suggested it should have been better. His average exit velocity and hard hit rate are still much better than league average.
That leaves the Ian Desmond narrative in a strange place. The data that suggests Desmond should have been better runs contrary to the fact that his results were almost exactly the same. The “should” statements of exit velocity, hard hit rate, and xwOBA didn’t ultimately apply to Desmond and his results. However good those stats are, they don’t always reveal the truth.
Desmond does still have value for the Rockies, as long as they deploy him to take advantage of his strengths. For instance, he hit left-handed pitching pretty well in 2019 — .297/.350/.626, compared to .226/.282/.375. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out how Desmond can be a contributor.
What the Rockies ultimately decide to do with Ian in 2020 will be revealing. A competitive team can’t afford to give Desmond regular playing time. If the Rockies feel they have no better options, that’s revealing too, because a team that has no option other than to play Desmond outside of a platoon role likely lacks the depth to be a competitor in the first place.