During his brief tenure with the Rockies, Ian Desmond has failed to take advantage of Coors Field, to put it lightly. Over the last year and a half, Desmond has put up a 75 wRC+, and he’s been the worst hitter on the Rockies not named Tony Wolters. A big reason for that is that he has been incapable of putting the ball in the air.
In 2017, Desmond hit 63% of balls on the ground. Not only was that the worst mark put up by any batter with at least 100 plate appearances, but even the most elite ground ball pitchers struggle to induce 60%. It’s as if he has continually faced an indestructible Brett Anderson in his prime.
It resulted in his first sub-replacement season as a major leaguer in which he hit .274/.326/.375, and remember, he played half his games in Coors.
He began this season even worse as he ended May with a 53 wRC+ and a 65% groundball rate. He was a major factor in why this has been one of the worst offensive Rockies teams in their short, dinger-laden history.
Over the month of June, however, Desmond hit .261/.387/.568 for a 142 wRC+. He brought his home run total to 17, over twice what he hit last season in 13 more games. For the first time since donning a Rockies uniform, he’s looked like the guy Colorado thought they were getting when they handed him a five-year contract.
It’s because he’s stopped hitting so many ground balls, right? Well, sort of.
In June, he hit 55% of balls on the ground. While that’s an improvement over the last year, it’s still 12 points over major league average. It’s also not any different than what he hit in May when he was dreadful. If we look at his rolling averages for 2018, we can see he’s had a stretch in June where he almost hit ground balls at a normal clip. That might explain the steady climb in wRC+, but he had a similarly competent stretch in May without the same results.
Desmond probably isn’t going to end 2018 hitting over 60% grounders again. He’s been mostly that mark for the last two months. He hit so poorly in April that it’s going to take a while for that to stabilize, but he’ll probably still wind up over his career average of 52%.
Hitting nearly 30% fewer ground balls explains some of his improvement, but it doesn’t explain all of it. His hard-hit rate is up five points, but that doesn’t seem like enough to double his wRC+. His BABIP for the month of June rose about 70 points to a somewhat normal level: .313.
Having better luck certainly helped, but that’s not all of it. The groundballs didn’t turn into more line drives and flies necessarily. He popped up 8% of the time, something he didn’t do at all in the first two months. He’s hit slightly more line drives in June compared to May and slightly fewer fly balls.
What’s happened to those fly balls is the difference.
In 2018, Desmond’s HR/FB has skyrocketed to 44%. In June, that ratio was 67%. He may not hit the ball in the air that often—the only qualified batters who have lower FB% are Eric Hosmer and Jon Jay—but when he does, they usually go over the fence.
Nobody has been better at hitting ground balls than Desmond. Nobody has been better at turning fly balls into home runs than Desmond. Both of those sentences cannot be true. It makes no sense, but it’s true.
This is a scatter plot of all qualified batters in 2018 sorted by their HR/FB ratio against their groundball percentage. Guess who that little dot all by itself in the top righthand corner is. Go on, guess. Give up? It’s Ian Desmond.
The only other person who has a ground ball rate over 50% and a HR/FB ratio over 25% is Nomar Mazara. Desmond is at 62% and 44% respectively.
It’s not just Coors Field either because he’s hit 13 of his 17 home runs away from Colorado. Two of his dingers came in San Francisco, where home runs go to die.
Clearly, Ian Desmond going to continue hitting half of his fly balls out of the park, Coors or not. This appears to be a momentary spike in power. It is weird that this spike occurred at all. Ordinarily, when a player hits a bunch of dingers in a short amount of time, I look at how pitchers approached them, and usually the extra power comes with an increase in middle-middle pitches or pitches to that player’s strengths, but not with Desmond.
Pitchers are still keeping everything down and away, where he’s likely to swing-and-miss or hit on the ground. They’ve stayed away from going down and in on him because that’s where he’s done the most damage. He’s simply been far more efficient with those pitches this season and especially in the last month.
Something has to give with Desmond. Either he has to stop hitting so many grounders or his fly balls have to stop turning into dingers. I’d figure the latter is more likely to happen. Either way, the HR/FB% is coming down.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, McCovey Chronicles, and BP Wrigleyville. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.