Between the talk of Jordan Zimmermann potentially being the best pitcher in Washington's rotation, whether Stephen Strasburg can finally reach the 200-inning plateau for the first time in his career, expectations for first-year manager Matt Williams and Bryce Harper's new favorite tee-shirt, one storyline has quietly evaded headlines this spring at Nationals' camp: Ian Desmond's reported rejection of a multi-year contract extension. Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post first reported the story in a reader chat online, citing that the proposed deal may have surpassed the $90 million threshold.
While Desmond and the Nationals were able to work out a two-year contract extension to avoid arbitration last month, the 28-year-old shortstop is still on track to become a free agent at the end of the 2015 season. Considering this, it makes little sense for Desmond to turn down such an offer, if only because his stock has never been higher. His last two seasons have been very productive, posting a .812 OPS and .285 average (first and second-best among shortstops with 1,000 plate appearances since 2012), which has helped earn him back-to-back silver slugger awards. He's been reliable as anyone with the glove, moreover, posting a .849 revised zone rating that tops all qualified shortstops over the past two seasons, according to FanGraphs.
But make no mistake: It's been Desmond's bat that's transformed him into one of the most complete shortstops in baseball. And the key factor behind his offensive coming-out party has been his aggressiveness at the dish.
Desmond's Isolated Power Relative to Pitch Location, 2010-2011
Desmond's Isolated Power Relative to Pitch Location, 2012-2013
Desmond's first two full seasons (2010-2011) with Washington were less than overwhelming, generating a .261/.303/.375 slash line with in 308 games (markedly below the league-average .267/.323/.386 line for qualified shortstops in that span). He was patient at the plate in these two seasons, offering at just 46.9% of all pitches thrown to him (compared to the 45% league average swing rate); however, he drew walks in just 5.2% of his plate appearances, which was well below the 8.7% league mark in that span. So while Desmond's patience was encouraging, he wasn't drawing enough walks to justify such a low swing rate.
Dramatic changes in this respect have come to fruition over Desmond's last two campaigns, however. In his most valuable season to date in 2012, the former Expos third-round draft pick increased his swing rate to 54.4%, a dramatic spike from the 45.1% rate he posted in 2011. Consequently, his slugging percentage that season rose to .511 (a career-best) and his walk rate actually remained at a steady 5.5% over both seasons. Last season, Desmond held back a bit more, pulling the trigger 50.3% of the time and, wouldn't you know it, his SLG% dropped to .453.
So from swinging at a combined 46.9% of all offerings between 2010-2011 to 52.1% from 2012-2013, Desmond's .374 SLG% in the first span jumped to .480 in the next. The driving force behind this increase was easily his aggressiveness early in counts, offering at 41.9% of first-pitches in his plate appearances in his last two seasons compared to 30.9% from 2010-2011. Conversely, his swing rate with two strikes has ever so slightly decreased from 59.3% previously to 59.1% over his most recent two campaigns.
What we're seeing here is an offensive transformation for Desmond. He's becoming more aggressive at the plate, especially early in counts, and becoming better at holding off in two-strike counts. Now, his offensive game plan is more oriented toward power than patience in a Washington lineup that's already one of the best in baseball. And that's a scary thought.