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Ian Desmond: From Expo To All Star

April 5, 2012 was a very important day for Washington Nationals’ shortstop Ian Desmond.  The 26-year old holdover from the Montreal Expos (the only other National who can claim that distinction is Roger Bernadina) was stepping to the plate against the Chicago Cubs in the season opener of the 2012 campaign.  For all intents and purposes, it was the beginning of the most pivotal season in Desmond’s career, one that would decide whether or not he would make a career as an everyday player in the major leagues.

2012 was deemed a make-or-break year for Desmond.  In 2011 Desmond’s second full year of starting he regressed significantly and posted thoroughly unimpressive stats.  His batting average went down almost 20 points and his defense, while slightly improved, was still a major question mark.

In that first game against the Cubs, the 330th game of his career, Desmond started his quest to silence the doubters by banging out three of Washington’s four total hits, and driving in a game-winning run in the top of the ninth inning. It was a resounding start to a year that has seen Desmond go from a potential replacement player to a National League All-Star, and arguably the most important player in the N.L.-leading Nationals’ lineup.

You can take any position you want to describe Desmond’s sudden rise.  It could be his slightly altered batting stance.  Or maybe it’s the immense amount of hard work he put in during the offseason. While it could be any combination of factors, one stands out above all – for the first time in his major league career, Ian Desmond is the most confident player on the field.

“He’s doing things we all know he’s capable of doing,” says Nats’ manager Davey Johnson.  Desmond’s confidence spurs from Johnson’s refusal to keep the rocket-armed shortstop out of the lineup.  Even when Desmond wasn’t hitting well near the end of March, Johnson stuck with him and the results have been superb.

Ian Desmond

Through 79 games, Desmond has already crushed his career high in home runs (14, vs 10 in 2010) and with 47 RBI is only two off the total he had all of last season.  His 11 errors put him on pace for a career low in the department that Nats fans have been grumbling about for his entire career.  Though his defense is not yet sterling, it is well beyond the point where fans cringed every time he fielded a routine ground ball.

Through all of his improvement, the most amazing thing about Desmond has been his ability to hit in the clutch.  While Adam LaRoche was the backbone of a struggling offense in the first part of the year, Desmond’s clutch hitting has been there since the beginning – and it’s gotten so good that you hope Desmond is up at the plate in any clutch situation.

Desmond’s newfound clutch gene was never more prominently on display than on June 5 against the Mets. Washington found itself down by one run in each of Desmond’s final three plate appearances, and the young shortstop promptly drove in a game-tying run in every single at bat, including two in extra innings.  Thanks to Desmond’s heroics, the Nats moved nine games over .500 with a 7-6, 12-inning victory.

Another stat that proves Desmond’s clutch factor is his ability to drive in runs with two outs.  More than half of his RBI come in these situations – 25.  Think about that.  With two outs, there are only two ways to score the runner when contact is made: by error, or by a hit.  That means that Ian Desmond gets hits with two outs, and he gets them a lot.

That screams clutch.

All the stats and the accolades can only say so much, though.  The best way to see Ian Desmond’s improvement is to simply watch him.  He’s not a kid anymore.  He’s a seasoned veteran who has learned how to play ball.  He’s become a feared hitter who can hit for average, power, and has speed on the base paths.  He doesn’t walk much, but he can hit the gap with the best of them (3rd in the N.L. in doubles) and he’s slugging almost .500.

Say what you want about Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, or Bryce Harper – Ian Desmond is the Original National, and he’s finally showing that he can play with the big boys.

Danny Espinosa’s spectacular play deserves All-Star consideration

Danny Espinosa is having a stellar season at second base for the Washington Nationals. Photo courtesy of kffl.com

Article By James O’Hara

When asked at the beginning of the season about how he felt being the everyday second baseman for the Washington Nationals, Danny Espinosa’s answer was a bit surprising: he expected to be in the majors since day one.  “I’ve always tried to push myself beyond what I am. Maybe those goals are beyond my reach. I’m still going to set them that way” Espinosa said.

Perhaps this is why, as the calendar turns to July, the 24-year old rookie has exceeded all expectations for him coming into the season and has turned into one of the bona-fide stars on what may be the best team in the Nationals’ short history.  Espinosa has become an excellent two-way player and should easily find himself not only playing in the All Star Game in Arizona this summer, but also as the leading contender for the N.L. Rookie of the Year award.

If the All Star Game selections were fair, and unfortunately we all know that they are not, Danny would easily slide into a reserve role for the N.L. team this year.  With usual stalwarts Dan Uggla and Chase Utley dealing with a massive slump and early season injury problems, respectively, the competition at second is nominal to say the least and Espinosa is taking full advantage.  He is incredibly efficient with his bat with a wOBA (Weighted Batting Average) of .350 and a wRAA (Weighted Runs Above Average) of 8.8, which both rank second in terms of NL second baseman, demonstrates that when he hits the ball you are getting your money’s worth. By more standard metrics, his 15 home runs and 48 RBI’s are first and second for National League second baseman respectively.

Despite weighing 190 pounds and playing a position that has produced a lack of power hitters throughout baseball history, Espinosa is on pace for over 30 home runs as a rooke. Photo courtesy of silive.com

Despite his magic with the bat, he may be an even better fielder as he ranks in the top two second baseman in the National League in many defensive statistics.   Especially brilliant are his RZR (Revised Zone Rating) and DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) numbers, .833 and 0, which are first and second for National League second baseman.  Danny is clearly excelling in every facet of the game right now and is arguably one of the best second baseman in the National League this season which should earn him the All Star nod.

Yet as strong as his case is to be in the All Star Game, that is nothing compared to how he should be running away and hiding with the NL Rookie of the Year award right now.  His 15 home runs, 48 RBI’s, UZR(Ultimate Zone Rating) of 4.2, and WAR(Wins Above Replacement) of 3.0 lead all rookies across both leagues.  In addition his wOBA of .350, wRAA of 8.8, OPS of .791, and WPA (Win Probability Added) of 1.45 are all good enough for second place among all rookies in the Major League.

But what might be even more important than the numbers is that the kid just knows how to play ball, showing experience and attitude years beyond his age.  “[Espinosa] plays hard-nosed baseball. He plays the game the right way,” teammate Jayson Werth said. “He comes to play every day. He’s here early. He works hard. He does all the right things, says all the right things. He’s intense. He learns quick. He gives it his all up there. There’s not a whole lot that you don’t like about him.”

Despite how impossible it seems that one of our beloved Nats not named Ryan Zimmerman is this good, Danny is most definitely the real deal and should be racking up the accolades this year with relative ease.

After showing flashes last season, Espinosa has developed into a full-time starter and a threat every time he steps into the batter's box. Photo courtesy of patrickfloodblog.com

Only one thing may stand between Danny and the recognition he deserves, his subpar batting average of .239.  Yet as the other statistics above prove this stat does not paint a very accurate picture of Espinosa’s hitting prowess, but it might be something that the powers that be get hung up on.  But even if Espinosa does not get the respect he so clearly deserves he has already cemented a small place in baseball history, with his 15th home run on Monday he now has the all-time mark for home runs by a rookie second baseman before the All Star break.

Finally, perhaps the best quote of the year thus far has come from Espinosa after his walk off home run against the Cardinals, “We’re turning things around. Losing isn’t acceptable in this clubhouse,” which is music to any Nationals fans ears.
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