Fantasy Buy Low Special: Nationals SS Ian Desmond
Once upon a time, not so long ago, we named Ian Desmond of the Nationals our No. 1 fantasy shortstop entering the regular season. Our reasons were simple. Power and average, combined with the overall health of Troy Tulowitzki? Yes please? I'll take one of him in the seventh round and a side of fries, please and thank you.
The regular season, though, hasn't been that simple. Tulowitzki has regained form and is seen as a Top 50 fantasy ballplayer. Jean Segura has become the shortstop wonder child who everybody wants to get their hands on. And Desmond? Well, he's down there as the No. 7 most-valuable shortstop this season in most ESPN standard leagues. He's not bad, but not great, either.
But here's the thing: his season hasn't been a disappointment from my perspective. In fact, with seven homeruns and a .265 batting average, Ian Desmond might be just where I want him. He's cheap enough to pick up for a low cost, but he also holds the potential to absolutely bust out the rest of this season.
Desmond may only be the No. 7 shortstop thus far, but according to our projections, that should change. Our numbers see him as the No. 1 most valuable shortstop (No. 15 overall batter) the rest of the way, and only Tulowitzki even comes close.
The key for Desmond is an ability to do a little bit of everything. Those 16 homeruns are projected as the 32nd most among all batters. The 13 stolen bases are also the 32nd most. Runs are ranked 39th, RBIs are ranked 52nd, and even that batting average places him 50th among all of our projections. There isn't a single category where he's below average.
And considering the rest of the shortstop crowd, that's a beautiful thing. Segura may have one more projected stolen base, but he's nowhere near Desmond's power or projected average (we have Segura at a .271 AVG the rest of this year). Everth Cabrera, another top shortstop selection, is only projected to hit .256 the rest of the way. And Starlin Castro? Please. There isn't a single typical 5x5 hitting category where we project him to have better stats than Desmond.
And the Reason Is...
So why has Desmond failed to live up to his No. 1 shortstop potential so far this season? The answer is a mixture of some key stats that have conspired to keep him down, but all of them have the potential to be turned around quickly.
Contact Rate - It's tough to consistently get going when you're striking out on 23.6 percent of plate appearances, the most of your career. The problem seems to come from simply getting his bat on the ball - only 74 percent of his swings have made contact this year. Considering he had never been below a 77 percent contact rate in his entire career, however, we expect that number to regress to the mean and his strikeout rate to lower in turn.
Converting Solid Hits - Desmond has always been great at converting balls in play into successful at-bats. His .320 career batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is well above the MLB mean, and that hasn't changed this year with a .318 clip. However, what has changed is the contact he's been making. 26 percent of Desmond's balls in play have been line drives, the highest percentage of his career and the first time he's been above the MLB average. Considering those hard-hit balls, we would expect his BABIP to rise, not stay the same.
The Surrounding Players - Last season, Desmond averaged 7.0 at-bats per RBI. This season, that number's up to 9.7. While part of that is due to Desmond's own contact rate, an even bigger issue is how Washington's hitting as a team. Their .287 OBP ranks dead last in the major leagues, and their 22.1 percent strikeout rate sits fourth behind the Astros, Braves, and Mets. How is Desmond supposed to put up fantasy stats (especially considering his 10.6 percent extra-base hit rate) if nobody's getting on base? However, as with all things, we expect Washington's OBP to regress towards the mean with time, giving Desmond more opportunities.
When these stats predictably turn around, fantasy owners should prepare to see Desmond launched into orbit. He's hitting more fly-balls than ever (a career-low 0.66 GB/FB ratio), and considering that 8.8 percent of his fly-balls are going for homeruns (just above his career average), those fly balls spell positive outcomes for his owners. Couple that with a career-average walk rate and extra-base hit rate, and Desmond seems poised to explode at any moment.
Am I trading Chris Davis for Ian Desmond? Not any time soon. But unless your shortstop is Tulowitzki, having Desmond on your side should be a substantial upgrade to the shortstop position over the rest of the season. It's at least worth a look to see what his current fantasy owner wants.