To kick off our fantasy baseball preview, Michael Beller will profile certain players who may not fit as a breakout, sleeper or bust (all of which we'll discuss in our preview), but who will still make a major impact in fantasy baseball this season.
If I told you only one player in the majors went 20/20 in each of the last three seasons, who would you guess? No, this isn’t the start of a new 30 for 30, it’s an honest question. When I read the same query late last week, my mind immediately went to 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. The Pirates’ center fielder did indeed have a string of three consecutive 20/20 seasons, but they were from '11 through '13. Last year, he hit 25 homers and stole just 18 bases. I know, he’s a bum, right? OK, so it isn’t McCutchen.
What about Mike Trout? The best player in baseball finally won his first AL MVP in his third season last year, but he didn’t go 20/20. He breezed past each of those thresholds in his first two years and did so again in the homer department last season, swatting 36 bombs. Unfortunately, he swiped 16 bases. I know, he’s also a bum, right? What's with these guys?
The player is, in fact, Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond -- he's hit 25/21, 20/21 and 24/24 in the last three seasons. Even though his batting average and OBP plummeted last year (.255 and .313, respectively after sitting at .280 and .331 in '13 and .292 and .335 in '12) he was a top-five shortstop for the third straight season. And according to Fangraphs’ Scott Strandberg, he’s the only shortstop who can say that.
The established shortstop order in the early 2010s included a top-tier troika of Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes. The first two are still in the upper echelon, but Desmond has replaced Reyes. There’s an argument to be made that he’s the best of the bunch, but we’ll save that for our shortstop primer, coming in a few weeks. This is more an examination of Desmond in a vacuum, rather than a comparison of him to his shortstop brethren.
In addition to his combination of power and speed, Desmond is going to be on the field for you all season. Since becoming the Nationals’ starting shortstop in 2010, he has played at least 154 games four times, and has never had a season playing fewer than 130 games. You’re going to have to spend a high pick on Desmond, but you’ve also locked up an elite player at a shallow position, and one who doesn’t carry an injury risk beyond the baseline attached to every player. That’s wildly valuable currency in a six-month game.
Desmond’s .326 BABIP from 2014 might seem a little lucky on its face, but it was right in line with his career .325. Desmond has never had a BABIP lower than .317, so there’s no reason to suspect that the batted-ball fairy was pulling the strings in his favor last season. As he enters his age-29 season, he’s right in the middle of his theoretical prime. There isn’t any reason to expect a downturn this season. Even if his production remains flat, you’re getting yourself a top-three shortstop and top-25 overall player.
There are, however, some disturbing trends in Desmond’s advanced numbers. His wOBA and weighted runs created plus have declined in each of the last two seasons. In 2012, his wOBA was .362 and his wRC+ was 128. Those fell to .341 and 116 in '13, before dipping to .329 and 108 last year. Conversely, his strikeout rate has increased in both of his last two campaigns, topping out at 28.2 percent in 2014. His swinging-strike rate was also a career-high 13.8 percent last year.
In the two years before Desmond began his run of 20/20 seasons, he showed plenty of speed but had just 18 combined homers. What changed in 2012? Well, he turned 27 at the end of that season, and we have plenty of evidence that points to age 27 being the year that a lot of players break out in the power categories. In addition, he stopped being so selective at the plate. In his first two years, he swung at less than two-thirds of all pitches he saw in the strike zone. In the last three, he has offered at more than 70 percent of balls in the zone. You can chalk that up to a new approach, but it definitely suggests a veteran player getting comfortable in the league.
Even with a red flag here or there, Desmond heads into the 2015 season as a top-tier shortstop who should be off the board within the first two or two-and-a-half rounds of any standard draft. He’s my No. 2 shortstop behind Tulowitzki, but I wouldn’t let him make it out of the second round in a 12-team league.