Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond grabbed the attention of fantasy owners in 2012 with a league-leading 25 home runs at his position.
Perhaps the biggest out-of-nowhere surprise no one is talking about from 2012 is Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, who exploded for 25 home runs, a year after smacking just eight (in 92 more at-bats). Those who took Desmond as a middle infield backup -- he was the 21st shortstop selected on average behind stalwarts like Jamey Carroll and Yuniesky Betancourt -- found themselves with an unlikely five-by-five rotisserie hero more valuable than any shortstop not named Ben Zobrist.
Desmond's .218 ISO nearly matched his previous two seasons combined (.104 in 2011; .124 in 2010), and, prior to leading all shortstops in the power department in 2012, he had failed to hit more than 13 home runs in any one season of professional baseball, including 18 total in his last two. Fueling Desmond's power surge was a home run-to-fly ball rate increase of silly proportions, as it jumped from six percent in 2011 to 18.2-percent in 2012, easily among the league's greatest increases. And it's not like Desmond's power was of the cheap variety, either, as his 407.4 feet average distance on home runs was well above the National League average of 395.7, according to ESPN Home Run Tracker.
Had Desmond not missed a stretch of 25 straight games in July and August with an oblique injury, he could have further improved on his .292/.335/.511 line, and it's possible we're talking about fantasy's No. 1 shortstop in 2012. Regardless, you're not complaining with what you got from Desmond, whose 128 wRC+ was second highest among all shortstops.
While everything went right for Desmond in 2012, I'm not sure he'll be able to put up a repeat season in 2013. After showing early signs of becoming a more disciplined hitter, Desmond's strikeout rate ended up right around his career average of 20.3-percent, while his ability to take a walk remained virtually nonexistent. His line drive rate went up some, but -- outside of a .332 BABIP -- there's little support to a batting average increase of nearly 40 points (he hit .253 in 2011).
I do believe Desmond overachieved in 2012, and I think his true potential is closer to a 15-homer, 20-stolen base player than as an annual 20/20 threat. His situation in 2012 reminded me a lot of Asdrubal Cabrera, who had a similar breakout with the Indians in 2011 after showing modest power throughout his professional career. That year, Cabrera's home run-to-fly ball rate jumped from three percent to 13.3-percent as he hit 25 home runs, the third most among shortstops. In 2012, Cabrera went on to hit 16 home runs, leaving fantasy owners who drafted him as the sixth shortstop wondering where all of the power went. Just as it was unlikely to expect another 25 homers from Cabrera in 2012, it's far from a sure thing Desmond hits 20 home runs in 2013. But, unlike Cabrera, you can at least count on 20-some steals.
The Fake Teams writing staff has Desmond as the eighth best shortstop heading into 2013, sandwiched between Derek Jeter and Elvis Andrus. In this case, I'd probably lean toward waiting on Andrus, who I think is a more reliable source of batting average, runs, and steals. It's hard not to picture Desmond finishing inside the top 10 of shortstops, but I remain unconvinced that his 2012 season is likely to happen again, especially as soon as 2013.
Statistics from FanGraphs.