Over the past two weeks, shortstop Ian Desmond has played some of the best defense of his young career. He has made almost all the plays he should make, having been charged with one error in his last 13 games, and made many others beyond the range of an average shortstop.
Desmond, at first, was hesitant to assign a reason for his recent stellar defense. “Luck,” he said. Those watching him closest don’t believe him.
“He’s really been on a mission to make himself better,” Nationals bench coach John McLaren said. “He’s really feeling good about himself. He was trying to find himself. I think he’s there.”
Desmond has looked more calm and confident when fielding balls this season, which said is product of his work during the offseason and before games. He’s improved at playing himself into good hops, knowing when to charge and when to stay back.
Error totals tell only a small part of a defensive player’s value, and at this point in this season, the sample size is not conducive to advanced defensive metrics revealing much, either. (Desmond’s UZR is -3.5 this year.) Quantitatively, it is hard to gauge Desmond’s improvement. But it seems obvious he has been played excellent recently.
“One of the things he had done in the past, he did everything real fast,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “There’s times when you have to do it fast, because of the speed of the runner and so forth. But I think he’s making good decisions about which balls he can play a little calmer and which ones he has to come after. He is playing a little slower pace, and he’s slowing the game down a little bit for himself.
“He just seems to have relaxed. He’s loose, having fund and making plays. He’s just a good player, and he’s exhibiting that.”
Last year, Desmond led the league with 34 errors, but he sensed himself starting to play better at the end of the season. He felt his miscues came when the Nationals were down in games and he tried to do too much. He made seven errors this year in the Nationals’ first 20 games. “Early in the year, he just was not playing loose,” Riggleman said. “I think we all could see it.”
Desmond has helped the Nationals team-wide defensive improvement. After ragged start in which the Nationals made 22 errors in 24 games, they have made just one in their last 12, the fewest in the majors. For the season, they are tied for 11th most errors, a significant improvement over last season, when the Nationals led the majors.
“I’ve improved every year since I’ve started,” Desmond said. “I don’t know what the numbers are, but I feel like last year, I was playing pretty solid defense. I made a couple mistakes, but we were also losing ballgames. It wasn’t as much of a priority as a team as it is this year. A lot of my mistakes came when we were down in ballgames when I was trying to do too much. We’re in a lot of these ballgames. The situations are really there where I have to push the envelope.
“I think as a team we’re playing better baseball. It’s a huge improvement. It’s definitely more fun going out there. I think we’ve been taking more pride it in this year. Everyone as a team is working harder at it. We know it’s a priority.”