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Ian Desmond regained leverage as well as value

Desmond’s upcoming payday has as much to do with the market as his renewed ability.

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This probably wasn’t how Ian Desmond planned his career. After turning down a 7-year, $107 million extension with the Nationals two years ago, he bet on himself to earn substantially more in free agency. The bet looked pretty good at the time and in 2014, but took a sharp turn for the worse in 2015. His year wasn’t that bad, actually, but combined with the qualifying penalty offer, it meant the best offer he got was a 1-year, $8 million deal from the Rangers. Even worse, reestablishing his value became more difficult, as the Rangers signed him to move down in the defensive spectrum, and play the outfield instead of shortstop.

When the Nationals offered the extension to Desmond, he had just come off a 2013 season where he hit .280/.331/.453 (a 116 wRC+), with 20 HR and above-average baserunning. His defense at shortstop was never very good, but he could at least handle the position enough to provide a substantial boost to his value. He was one of only four qualified shortstops who were above-average hitters in 2013. Only Troy Tulowitzki had a higher ISO than Desmond, and he hit at Coors Field.

Desmond likely thought that he’d be entering a weak free agency class for shortstops and would be going into his age-30 season. While that’s not particularly young for a free agent, and while middle infielders tend to suffer more wear and tear, it’s not too old either, and he had a great track record of health that continues to this day. Based on what we knew at the time Desmond turned down the extension, one could make a reasonable argument that it was a reasonable bet to make. Don’t get me wrong, there were certainly good arguments against it, but Desmond’s decision was at the very least defensible.

In 2014, his bet was looking pretty smart. His offense declined slightly because of a drop in batting average that came from a significant increase in strikeouts, but he was still hitting for a lot of power for a shortstop, ranking second in ISO at the position, behind only Jhonny Peralta.

Because DRS and UZR don’t agree on his defense, his fWAR tends to be higher than his bWAR. However, I believe it’s fair to say that he had consistently been an All-Star caliber player to that point in his career. An All-Star caliber shortstop is worth far more than the $107 million the Nationals offered to Desmond. Again, so far, so good.

Then, ironically, in his contract year of 2015, Desmond had his worst offensive season since 2011. His 83 wRC+ ranked only tenth among qualified shortstops. His power didn’t drop too much, but his .290 OBP meant he was making far too many outs for that power to overcome. It still was a decent season for Desmond overall, having been worth 2 bWAR, but it was a big drop from where he had been.

One could say that the league overreacted to his disappointing 2015 in not giving Desmond a better deal. One could cite recency bias and overvaluing one year over his established track record. These are reasonable arguments, but there are caveats that go beyond what I’ve already mentioned regarding the qualifying offer and Desmond’s age.

Desmond was still striking out a lot in 2015, and his groundball percentage of 54.4 percent had risen ten points in two years. It’s hard to hit for power when you’re putting the ball on the ground that often. The bright side of having a high groundball percentage is that it can lead to a high batting average, but Desmond wasn’t even succeeding in that regard. His line drive rate was correspondingly down several percentage points since 2013. I went through Desmond’s plate discipline numbers for 2014 and 2015 expecting to find more answers as to why his offense dropped so much last season. To my surprise, they were almost exactly identical.

The reality is that not only were prospective employers overreacting to a bad 2015, they were overreacting to half of a bad 2015.

AVG OBP SLG BABIP HR/FB% wOBA
1st half 2015 .211 .255 .334 .279 9.7 .258
2nd half 2015 .262 .331 .446 .346 23.5 .337

Let’s take a look at his plate discipline splits.

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr% BB% K%
1st half 2015 37.2% 70.0% 51.7% 58.2% 87.7% 75.9% 44.3% 71.6% 12.5% 4.9% 28.4%
2nd half 2015 30.8% 70.1% 47.1% 54.9% 79.6% 70.1% 41.4% 59.0% 14.1% 9.6% 30.0%

There were still contact issues for Desmond in the second half, but he learned to stop pressing at the plate and take more walks. Outside of the strikeouts, he was more or less back to normal after the 2015 All-Star break.

It’s amazing how much one half season impacted Desmond’s free agency. Even the pre-season projections were low on him. ZiPS projected a .311 wOBA, and Steamer projected a .307 wOBA, which would’ve been only the slightest of rebounds from 2015.

Instead, Desmond has hit .285/.336/.451 in Arlington, which is good for a 107 wRC+. Those numbers are well in line with his career stats, and his strikeout rate has dropped 5.5 percentage points from last year. He does have have a high .350 BABIP, but he’s always been a high BABIP guy. His 18.5 percent HR/FB ratio is significantly higher than his 13.9 percent career rate, so the ballpark is clearly helping him, but even by park-adjusted measures, he’s back to being a highly productive hitter. I believe it’s fair to say that he’s a league-average hitter by true talent right now, and ZiPS and Steamer are only slightly more pessimistic than I am, projecting his true talent at a 96 wRC+.

I was surprised at how often I saw concern from fans and writers about moving Desmond to left field. Citing the anecdotal evidence of Hanley Ramírez’s disastrous attempt at left field really isn’t a great argument. Shortstops, even the ones who are below-average fielders, generally need to have a good amount of speed, agility, and athleticism to handle the position at all. Such a player should be able to handle a corner outfield position easily. As it turns out, the Rangers have played Desmond primarily in center field, which hasn’t turned out great according to the advanced defensive metrics. He’s clearly better in the corner, but the Rangers just didn’t have any better options for center because Delino DeShields can’t hit, and as he did at shortstop, Desmond has succeeded enough in the field to be a very valuable player.

There’s no question that Desmond has improved his value this season, but by how much is the question. I suspect that he’ll have another qualifying offer to deal with, since the Rangers don’t have anybody better to play center field after trading away Lewis Brinson. Eric Jenkins is their most promising center field prospect, but he’s only 19 years old and there’s serious questions about his bat, so he’s at least a few years away.

How much Desmond will get in free agency will depend on whether he’s signed as a utility player or everyday shortstop. The good news for him is that not only is it a weak free agency class, there’s nobody out there at shortstop. He won’t get close to what the Nationals once offered him, but I could see him getting a multi-year deal in the $15-20 million AAV range.

I could also see Desmond getting massively overpaid for the same reasons he got massively underpaid this season: leverage. Talent evaluation is not the sole decider in determining what kind of contract a free agent gets. Front offices are very smart these days. They know how to properly evaluate free agents, and I’d bet no team believed he was “worth” so little money this year. The risks associated with his down year, the qualifying offer, and the lack of competitive teams with a real need at shortstop all worked against Desmond. Asdrúbal Cabrera and Alexei Ramírez didn’t have qualifying offers attached to them either. This year, however, with Desmond’s offensive rebound, defensive flexibility, and the sparse market, the leverage has swung in the other direction.

Last year, the Rangers smartly worked Desmond over in order to sign him to a deal that ended up ludicrously good. It might sound cold, but that’s business. Hopefully, Desmond will get his turn this winter.

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Luis Torres is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.