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Ian Desmond may find positive value through his position change

Desmond will move to center field next season.

Colorado Rockies v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Ian Desmond is changing positions in 2019.

This past December, the Rockies brought in free agent Daniel Murphy on a two-year, $24 million contract to play first base, the position where Desmond made 131 of his 149 starts last season.

So, when Bud Black announced last Thursday that Desmond will primarily be playing center field next season, the news of a position change was far from a shock.

What might be shocking, though, is that switching from first base, a relatively easy position to play, to center field, a tougher one, could actually result in a substantial increase in Desmond’s value.

The 33-year-old has not logged consistent innings in center field since his brief one year stint with the Texas Rangers, but he was quite good there that year. According to Baseball Savant and Statcast, Desmond was worth +4 defensive outs above average in 2016 but has only been worth a net zero in the two years since.

A better measure of Desmond’s fielding on a positional, rather than yearly, basis would be his UZR/150. (UZR is used in FanGraphs’ calculation of WAR.) Desmond played 1,109 innings in center in Texas, rating out as -0.8 runs by UZR/150.

While, yes, that was still below-average and did not compare well to other center fielders around baseball, it was still better a better mark than what Desmond has posted at his main position in the past two seasons. In 2017, that primary position was left field, where he posted a -4.7 UZR/150. And, in 2018, that primary position was first base, where he posted a -3.6 UZR/150.

Desmond’s fielding performance at his primary position

Year Primary Position Innings UZR/150
Year Primary Position Innings UZR/150
2018 First Base 1,158.0 -3.6
2017 Left Field 557.1 -4.7
2016 Center Field 1,109.0 -0.8

(Desmond’s 2017 campaign was shortened due to injuries.)

Those numbers don’t look starkly different, but, in terms of overall value, they mean a lot. Why? The answer is quite simple: positional adjustment.

Positional adjustment works under the assumption that, in order to compare two players of different positions in WAR, one must reward players for playing tougher defensive positions and penalize those who play easier defensive positions.

For the vast majority of defenders, first base is the easiest defensive position to play. Naturally, first basemen are penalized with a -12.5 runs above average adjustment, prorated to the number of innings played at first base, when calculating their overall value. For Desmond, because he was a bad fielder at an easy position, his overall fielding value tanked. In fact, Desmond was worth -12.5 defensive runs (-2.5 UZR - 10.5 defensive adjustment) playing first base last season, ranking fifth-worst in baseball among first basemen with at least 800 innings.

Worst defenders at first base, 2018

Player Name Innings at 1B UZR at 1B Positional Adjustment Defensive Value (in runs)
Player Name Innings at 1B UZR at 1B Positional Adjustment Defensive Value (in runs)
Josh Bell 1,181.1 -4.6 -10.1 -14.7
Eric Hosmer 1,378.0 -2.6 -11.8 -14.4
Ryon Healy 1,139.0 -4.0 -9.8 -13.8
Jose Abreu 999.2 -4.7 -8.6 -13.3
IAN DESMOND 1,158.0 -2.5 -10.0 -12.5
Paul Goldschmidt 1,365.2 0.0 -11.8 -11.8
Carlos Santana 1,275.0 0.4 -11.0 -10.6
Chris Davis 1,010.0 -1.7 -8.7 -10.4
Justin Smoak 1,127.1 -0.7 -9.7 -10.4
Yuli Gurriel 873.0 -2.1 -7.5 -9.6

As you can see in the chart, Desmond wasn’t the worst defender on this list, but he was a bad defender who logged a lot of innings at an easy position. This is what results in an extremely low positional adjustment on top of poor defense to begin with.

Center field, where Desmond is likely to play in 2019, is a much tougher position to play. The positional adjustment there is +2.5 runs, a 15-run swing from first base. For most players, this probably wouldn’t be all that helpful. If you stuck Eric Hosmer out in center field. . .well, you get the point.

Desmond is a weird case because he might just be a better defender at center field than he is at first base. This would result in not only his total defensive numbers improving, but also an added bonus in his positional adjustment. His value, quite frankly, could skyrocket.

Let’s conduct a simple exercise just to see how impactful this switch could be.

Desmond posted a -0.7 fWAR last season. He was, in the eyes of FanGraphs, worse than a replacement-level player. His WAR was calculated this way:

  • -14.3 batting runs
  • 0.0 base running runs
  • -1.3 fielding runs
  • -10.7 positional adjustment
  • +1.1 league adjustment
  • +18.5 replacement-level player runs

Sum those numbers, divide by 9.917 (the number of runs per win in 2018) and you get -0.676. That was Desmond’s value in 2018.

But let’s just say that Desmond played 162 nine-inning games at center field last season, at the -0.8 UZR/150 pace that he established while in Texas. Even if you assume that he makes no improvements to his offense or base running, this is how his numbers would come out:

  • -14.3 batting runs
  • 0.0 base running runs
  • -0.9 fielding runs (Note: I converted UZR/150 to UZR: -0.8 / 150 * 162 = -0.864)
  • +2.5 positional adjustment
  • +1.1 league adjustment
  • +18.5 replacement-level player runs

Sum those numbers up, divide by 9.917 and you get 0.695. For simplicity sake, let’s call that 0.7. Desmond’s fWAR last season would have moved from -0.7 to +0.7, a 1.4-win swing, on the basis of defense alone. That’s assuming that his bat remains awful, and he still runs the bases at league average.

This assumes, of course, that Desmond remains a decent fielder in center field in 2019, three years removed from his last stint playing there every day. Recent evidence would suggest that Desmond is still a better outfielder than he has been first basemen; in 704.2 innings there in Colorado, he has been worth a total of 0.0 UZR.

It’s not a guarantee by any means, but moving Ian Desmond to center field could help him find positive value for the first time in three years. That’s big for a Rockies team that is looking to make the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.