Just as the Washington Nationals have, shortstop Ian Desmond got off to a very hot start. He had three hits opening day and for the first 10 games of the season he continued that torrid pace, going 17-for-48 (.354). But in those ten games he walked just twice. Granted, after ten games a slash line of .354/.380/.479 is awfully impressive.
In the seven games since, Desmond has gone ice cold. He’s 4-for-27 (.148) with two extra base hits and just three walks. I think you can see where I’m going with this.
I’ve written it several times now in Desmond’s career: while the hits are falling in, he’s an exciting player to watch and can contribute to a Major League batting order. When he’s cold, his lack of any plate discipline makes him a liability in any lineup, let alone in the leadoff spot.
Desmond’s approach at the plate, endorsed by manager Davey Johnson this spring, follows this mantra: Swing, Swing, Swing. He often offers at the first pitch of every at bat. In fact, for his career he swings at 32 percent of all first pitches. This season it’s up to a whopping 46 percent! How drastic is that? The MLB average for swinging at the first pitch is 26 percent. According to Fangraphs, Desmond sees the fourth highest percentage of first pitch strikes in all of baseball.
He’s seen exactly two 3-0 counts this season. As a result of all those swings, he sees dramatically less than the MLB average number of pitches per at bat.
His walk rate, in a word, is terrible. His five walks in 81 plate appearances this season (buoyed by two walks against the Padres Wednesday night) actually shows a slight increase in his walk rate (6.1 percent), but here’s the caveat for small sample size. Take away last night’s game, and Desmond had walked three times in 76 plate appearances (3.9 percent). His career rate is 5.3 percent, well below the MLB average of 8.5 percent.
Desmond’s defense thus far has been noticeably better than previous years. He has just two errors in his first 17 games, and one of those was a very dubious call. He makes plays in the field with his legs and arm that other shortstops only dream of making. If he’s truly turned a corner with his defense, he’ll play in the Majors for a long time. But his streaky nature, and lack of any semblance of plate discipline, dooms him as a leadoff hitter. You could get away with his streaky bat hitting seventh, or more suitably, eighth, where a free swinger can take advantage of having the pitcher hit behind him.
But please, I implore you, do not be confused with Desmond’s 10-game hot streak at the start of the season. He has not turned any corners with the bat. He is the same hitter he always has been. As a result, the Nats offense will not get significantly better until they either replace Desmond at the top of the lineup or he changes his approach at the plate. I don’t think we’ll see either this season.