Over the winter, Ian Desmond reflected on his career season. After years of tinkering with his swing and trying to hit the ball the other way, he finally felt comfortable in his own skin at the plate. He smashed 25 home runs, posted a triple slash line of .292/.335/.511, became an all-star and earned fringe MVP votes. He still swung at a lot at first pitches and didn’t work deep into counts or draw walks, but he found a swing and approach that suited him.
“Stop trying to be a scientist out there,” he said. “You get in trouble. I go home and watch baseball in the offseason. I watch baseball all the time. So I see what all these great hitters are doing. And I want to try to do the things that they’re doing. But I’m not them. I’m me. So they do what they do because they go out there and use the swing that they know how to use. I can’t do what they’re doing. So when I stopped trying to do that, I feel like I found my own swing and be my own player.”
Desmond told himself, at one point this offseason, that he didn’t want to strike out over 100 times again and that he was capable of doing better. But then, he realized that he’s not exactly scared of striking out that many times; it’s the fact that he isn’t putting the bat on the ball enough. That, he said, is his goal for this season. If he can reach the ball and it’s one he’s capable of hitting, he will swing.
“I want to put more balls in play,” he said. “I don’t want to foul so many balls off. I want to get better pitches to hit earlier in the count. So it’s not necessarily that I’m worried about not striking out, more that I want to put the ball in play more often. Swinging and missing is fine. Striking out is okay. But I want to be able to the put the ball in play because that’s when I give myself the best chance. I’m not going to go up there and set a walks record, I know that. I don’t like being deep in counts. I much prefer to have contact early in the count. Everybody knows that.
“I think I’m at a place where I’m trusting my swing and I’ve basically had the same swing for two years now. And that’s the first time in my career that I’ve ever done that, and not come in and reinvent my swing and working on new adjustments and things like that. So I feel much more comfortable and I’m picking up right where I left off last year, which is great. I think it’s just a matter of putting the ball in play, rather than trying to do too much or whatnot.”
There is truth to Desmond’s sentiment. According to one statistic, BABIP (batting average with balls in play), Desmond has success when he makes contact. A jump from year to year could be caused by a number of factors: luck (for example, on a bloop hit falling in), the opposing defense’s skill (great range robbing hits) and a player’s development. Desmond posted a .332 BABIP last season, a sizeable increase from .317 in 2011 and the same average in 2010. There’s a sense that a player will return to his career average after a one-year jump. But Desmond’s career BABIP is .320 — above major league average range — and some projections have his 2013 BABIP just above that.
Line drive percentages are also an indicator of a player’s ability to make solid contact on balls. Line drives are more likely to become hits than groundballs, and in turn, groundballs are more likely than flyballs. Desmond’s line drive percentage — the number of balls he put in play that were line drives — was 16 percent in 2011. Last season, it jumped to 19 percent, not an insignificant change over the course of 600-plus plate appearances. His percentage went from below average to above average a year later.
He also swung at 79 percent of the strikes he saw last season — a 10 percent jump from 2011 and by far his career high. He put 32 percent of the strikes he saw in play — two percent more than 2011. For 2013, he said doesn’t necessarily want to be more aggressive that than, but capitalize more on pitches in his wheelhouse.
“In previous seasons, I was probably more free-swinging, feeling like I can hit anything and just swing at it and try to hit it,” he said. “Now, I just want to be more aggressive on zoning in on one specific area and try to drive the ball as opposed to – not flailing at it. Davey [Johnson] calls it a jab. He doesn’t want me to jab. He wants me to uppercut, if that makes sense. Do some damage when you swing, as opposed to throwing a warning shot out there.”
Desmond has made no secret about his desire to swing at the first pitch thrown to him. Of qualifying hitters, he was second in the majors last season swinging at first pitch strikes 47 percent of the time — an large 17 percent jump from 2011. He knows he can’t work pitchers; it’s not his skill. The Nationals tried him as leadoff hitter early least season, as they had in the past, but that didn’t work because it didn’t fit his style. He walked only 30 times in 547 plate appearances last season.
“I sit and listen to all these pitches talk,” Desmond said. “I listen to everybody. First-pitch strike is what every pitcher on Earth wants. Well, I want to hit a strike so I’m going to swing at the first one you throw. I don’t care. I’m not just going to go up there and just take it. ‘Oh, he’s trying to throw a first-pitch strike so I’m going to just take it. And what? I’m going to be 0-1 and give myself two strikes until I’m out?’ No. If you throw it down the middle, I’m going to hit it. .. I’m not Jayson [Werth]. Jayson is great at working the counts and so is Denard [Span] That’s their game. But that’s not my game. I tried to do that for years and just was terrible at it.”