Quick: name the shortstop who led the major leagues in home runs last year. I'll give you a hint: he also led in OPS+, posted an above-average defensive season per Ultimate Zone Rating, and held down the position for the team with the National League's best record. And he's only 27, suggesting his best days are just ahead of him.
Hopefully, you know I'm referring to Ian Desmond, shortstop for the Washington Nationals. But while serious baseball fans have heard of Desmond, many casual ones still haven't. And it's kind of shocking that what was just recently baseball's glamor position, home to Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra, somehow has failed to generate the same kind of national enthusiasm for Desmond's work.
Desmond is the power-hitting shortstop for what most people expect will be the National League's best team in 2013, playing in an awfully large media market. So why is he failing to get the kind of recognition of, for instance, Rey Ordonez, Alex Gonzalez and Edgar Renteria?
"Well, that's great, and that's just the way I want it to be," Desmond said, chatting in front of his locker Sunday at Citi Field, prior to Washington's 2-0 loss to the Mets. "My biggest thing, and I think you talk to any shortstop in the league, he'll say the same thing, is you want to win. So you can talk about the other guys [on the Nationals], but if there's other guys to talk about, that means we're having success."
Desmond has a point: He's playing in the media shadow of players like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, two top overall picks who rocketed to the major leagues and enjoyed immediate success. He's also playing with high-priced free agent Jayson Werth, franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman, and ace for most other teams Gio Gonzalez.
By contrast, Desmond took far longer to even reach the major leagues, struggled once he arrived, and only really came into his own as an every day player as the Nationals themselves reached prominence.
Desmond was there before the beginning. The Montreal Expos made Desmond their third round pick in the 2004 draft, the season before the franchise moved to Washington. Adam Lind, drafted just ahead of him, debuted in 2006 for the Blue Jays. Jason Windsor, drafted later that round, did the same for the Athletics.
But Desmond played six long years in the minor leagues before debuting in September 2009, to little fanfare. Baseball America had him as the nineteenth-best prospect in the Nationals' organization, behind such players as Leonard Davis, Bill Rhinehart, Adrian Nieto and Chris Marrero. Wrote BA at the time: "Early on during Desmond's slow climb through the system, organization officials speculated that he might be the kind of player who needs 2,000 pro at-bats before he's ready for the big leagues." Ultimately, Desmond logged 2,371 of them.
BA concluded that the Nationals "are still waiting for him to translate his tools into results". Fellow prospect maven John Sickels concurred, calling him "more of a tease than a sure thing," and adding that "it doesn't look like he'll hit enough to be a starter."
At first, Desmond appeared to dispel those doubts with a strong September debut, hitting 280/.318/.561 in 89 plate appearances. However, pitchers stopped throwing him strikes, and Desmond, intent upon improving his plate discipline, he says, instead failed to hit or walk, dropping to an 89 OPS+ in 2010 and then just 80 in 2011. On a .500 team, that was good for worst OPS+ of anyone in the everyday lineup.
So 2012 represented quite a jump for Desmond, whose 127 OPS+ was second only to Adam LaRoche's 129 among the Nationals' everyday players. He was more aggressive in his approach, and it paid off. He was named to the All Star team, his first, but an oblique injury kept him from playing in the game, and revealing his talent to a national audience. It's as if he suddenly developed into a star, hidden in plain sight.
Desmond believes this set of experiences allows him to be a better leader in the clubhouse.
"I've seen some great successes, and some great trials and tribulations along the way," Desmond said. "I have seen quite a bit. I've been through some good times, I've been through some rough times. I think I can relate to a lot of people, whether it's a kid who gets called up, or a veteran guy who's had success. I think I can talk to everybody... I don't think there's any conversation that's really out of my league."
The conversation that no one seems to have had lately is exactly how to get Desmond out with regularity. It seems like it should be fairly simple; Desmond is up looking to swing early, and likes fastballs. It is all too common in baseball for someone with that preference to get called up, exposed as Desmond appeared to be in 2010 and 2011, and shortly thereafter, head to the bench or out of the league.
But not only did Desmond take the opposite path in 2012, he's doing the same thing early in 2013. On Saturday, he hit a first-pitch fastball from Jeremy Hefner over the wall in left-center. But he's also hit home runs on off-speed pitches, his first a dramatic tie-breaking shot off of J.J. Hoover in a 7-6 win over the Reds on April 6, his next one a 1-1 slider off of Jake Peavy in an 8-7 win over the White Sox on April 9.
So it isn't just fastballs, it isn't just early in the count, and it isn't just happening against rookies. Ian Desmond is hitting right now, period.
Veteran pitcher Zach Duke, now a reliever with the Nationals, used the approach that used to work against Desmond, but hasn't of late.
"My approach was just to try to use his aggressiveness against him," Duke said of facing his now-teammate when we spoke on Sunday. "I know he's coming out, attacking the first pitch he sees, and the ability to hit the ball hard anywhere in the strike zone. So my approach was to pitch the ball just off the strike zone and hope for the best."
But why has that approach, which would seem to be effective against Desmond as much as ever, stopped working?
"When he's going good, he's not missing pitches," Duke said of even pitches off the plate. "So the approach has shifted to, I'm not going to let him beat me with the game on the line."
Duke expressed surprise that more people haven't taken notice of Desmond's evolution as a hitter.
"In my opinion, he is the top shortstop around, especially in the National League," Duke said. "You'd think a guy like that would get more notoriety. But it also speaks to the talent level on this team that he's just another one of the pieces in this lineup... It's sad that he doesn't get more recognition, but a lot of it has to do with the level of talent that's here."
Desmond, for his part, seems happy to be starring in relative obscurity.
"Hopefully, one day, all the all star games and World Series and all that stuff will come," Desmond said, permitting himself a small smile at the thought of it. "But if not, I'm perfectly at peace with where I'm at."
* * *
Howard Megdal is Writer-at-Large for Capital New York, covers the Mets and Knicks for The Journal News, and is the author of "The Baseball Talmud," "Taking the Field" and "Wilpon's Folly."