No team in baseball is hotter offensively than the Colorado Rockies. They lead all teams with 319 runs since May 1, and their non-pitchers have the highest batting average (.293) and on-base percentage (.354) during that time. Their .501 slugging percentage is four points behind the Twins for the MLB lead.
Superstars Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon have led the way at the plate, predictably, plus David Dahl has been a force as well. Also a big contributor: Ian Desmond. Desmond was one of the least productive players in baseball the last two seasons (minus-1.8 WAR), but now he’s having a strong year at the plate, hitting .279/.339/.524 with 20 doubles and 11 homers.
Coors Field is of course contributing to Desmond’s success to some degree. He is a .315/.376/.577 hitter at home this season compared to .246/.303/.475 on the road. Just last year Desmond hit .239/.319/.404 at home though, and he slugged .430 on the road from 2017-18. His overall production is up this year.
For Desmond, the name of the game is getting the ball airborne. From 2017-18, his 62.3 percent ground ball rate was far and away the highest among the 210 players with at least 800 plate appearances. Eric Hosmer was a distant second at 57.9 percent. The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 was the same as the gap between No. 2 and No. 8.
This year Desmond is sporting a 45.2 percent ground ball rate, which is not spectacularly low, but is a heck of a lot better than 60-something-percent like the last two years. His 16.8 percentage point drop in ground ball rate from 2018 to 2019 is the largest in baseball. Gary Sanchez is the only other player to lower his grounder rate at least 13 points this year.
Not surprisingly, there is a swing change behind Desmond’s newfound ability to avoid ground balls. Here’s what he told Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post in April:
“I worked my contact point too far back, and I started sitting back a little too much,” he said, noting that he’s worked hard to change his swing path in an effort to drive the ball into Coors’ big gaps. “I want to get back to being more natural and just hitting the ball; just making good contact.
“Hitting the ball hard hasn’t been an issue. I generally have a pretty decent exit velocity. It’s about meeting the ball a little farther out in front and being in the driver’s seat.”
Desmond’s average exit velocity has jumped from 89.9 mph last year to 92.1 mph this year — 92.1 mph puts him in the 92nd percentile league-wide — so he’s hitting the ball harder and he’s hitting the ball in the air more often. Hard-hit balls in the air are a wonderful recipe for success. Desmond’s rebound at the plate isn’t a fluke. The process behind it is sound.
Even with the increased offensive production, Desmond remains a flawed player because he strikes out a good deal and is prone to mistakes in the field. At least now he’s contributing on offense though. He was a black hole his first two years with the Rockies. Desmond’s five-year, $70 million contract is a sunk cost. Colorado owes him that no matter what. At least now he is giving them some production, and maybe his new swing can help salvage that contract.