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Playing 'what if' with Ian Desmond's defense

In 2015, Ian Desmond could find himself in a new situation. With all the difficulty he's having with his defense so far this year, where might he fit in the future?

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It's a simple fact of life: Ian Desmond is going to make some errors. In many ways, it's his calling card. Solid offense? Sure. The overall value of an All-Star? You bet! But with all the good, you have to take some bad. And the bad is his propensity to muck up regular plays.

To start the 2015 season, things have not gone so well for Desmond. As of this writing, Desmond has logged eight errors in just 15 games. It's fair to expect Desmond to post 20-30 errors during the course of a season -- it's even fair to expect him to lead baseball in errors. Heck, he had the league in 2010. And Desmond was second in baseball in errors last year, and hit the top five two other times.

But, when so many happen in such a short period of time, it can be (1) disheartening and (2) perhaps dramatically affect a team's wins and losses. And at no point was this more true than right after his eighth game, because that was the game where he made his sixth error of the season. Six errors in eight games! At that point, you can use the awful early-season "on pace for" to start imagining some scary stuff.

Fortunately -- I guess -- Desmond's early defensive miscues were nearly overshadowed by the Nationals' inability to score. I mean, when you only put up six runs in three games against the Phillies, you can probably just pack it in no matter how bad your shortstop is. Yuck.

So we're not even halfway through April, and Desmond's already tallied about 1/4th of his usual error total, in about 1/10th of his games. How bad is that? Well, let's look back at those first six errors, and see just how much of an outlier that was for him, personally.

How Many Games Does It Take Ian Desmond to Make Six Errors?

Year Number of Games To Reach Six Errors
2015 8
2014 16
2013 16
2012 34
2011 19
2010 30
2009 16

For Desmond -- it may not be that big of a deal. In 2014, he had six errors by the close of his 16th game. In 2013, he had four errors in his first five games, and six errors by the close of his 16th game. In 2012, well, that was a lot better, and he only had 15 errors on the season. In 2011, it was six errors by the close of game No. 19 -- and a seventh in game No. 20.

Here's the narrative thread: Ian Desmond makes errors in bunches. Often, it's at the beginning of a season. This year, the process has just been slightly skewed to earlier in the team's games -- though, ironically, roughly the same dates as previous years.

Does this mean that Desmond's defense isn't worth worrying about? I'm really not sure. Keep this in mind, we think we know that defense (along with speed), peaks early. If Desi, at his age-29 season, is already hitting a bit of a defensive decline, that's worth considering and adjusting his value accordingly.

Can You Show Me a GIF of Desmond Making an Error?

You bet!

Sweet. How About Another?


While You're at it, I Could Use a Sandwi-

Moving on!


The end result of what I've found from looking at the timing of Desmond's errors is this: it feels like they come in bunches, and those bunches have tended to pop up at the top of the season. Just because Desmond clustered his most recent errors very early in the season shouldn't make us any more worried than we already should be about his defense.

(We've got other things to worry about here, such as the potential offensive decline outlined in Neil Weinberg's article at FanGraphs from last month.)

And we're not exactly talking about Derek Jeter levels of defensive sadness here, either. Over the past three years (2012-2014), Desmond's DRS has totaled -6, and his UZR has totaled a positive 8.9. Baseball Prospectus's FRAA credits him with the same -6 as DRS over that period ... but that's skewed by a massive -15.0 FRAA in 2012. In 2012, Desmond committed fewer errors than in any of his full seasons, only 15.

So, given Ian's problems with so many chances, and so many errors ... what if Desmond moved to a less demanding defensive position? Would that mitigate the number of errors? It's likely that it would -- after all, many of Desmond's errors (54, in his career) are throwing errors. Perhaps a move to second base would take a couple of those off the board.

Let's say, hypothetically, that Desmond moved over to second base. His overall value -- especially in those pesky wins above replacement metrics -- would take a real hit. Moving from shortstop to second base is about equivalent to losing half a win of value over 150 games. And that takes into account that his defense would transfer roughly even to his new position. If for some reason we thought that Desmond's particular skillset would adapt better than average to the new position -- and we probably shouldn't -- then he might gain back some of that value. But I think we have enough data on his range and his hands to say he probably wouldn't immediately become an airtight defender at second base.

Perhaps more importantly, there's a lot less supply and a lot more demand right now for a shortstop than there is for a second baseman. While in the past second base has been a bit of a wasteland, the 2015-2016 free agent market has a couple of tasty names looking to be available. Guys like Daniel Murphy of the Mets and Howie Kendrick of the Dodgers lead a not-at-all-embarassing FA class. Aaron Hill is, reportedly, WAY available. You can get a decent second baseman these days just a bit easier than a shortstop, I'd project.

So yeah, Ian Desmond is kind of a disaster at shortstop. He's a guy who you have to assume will continue to make errors, but it's something you might just have to live with in order to find a warm body who can hit. Sure, you could convert him to a less-demanding position, but it'd hurt his overall value and there are other options at second base. Until there's good evidence that his defense at shortstop has gotten even worse -- and there's a chance this season might prove that -- then either the Nationals or whatever squad picks him up in the offseason is just going to have to deal with it.

It's hard to find a shortstop who can do everything these days, but perhaps there's still value in having one who can hit a bit, even if his defense can be a human-shaped disaster hole sketchy. I mean, it worked for that guy on the Yankees for all those years.

(Note: R.J. Anderson of Baseball Prospectus happened to tackle Desmond's defense today as well. Check out his piece as well. I'd make a comment about great minds thinking alike but, well, you know.)

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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphsBaseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus.

Bryan Grosnick is the Lead Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @bgrosnick.