When the 2012 season began, the discussion when it came to the Washington Nationals' infield revolved around whether or not Ian Desmond was an everyday player or a future utility man The 26-going-on-27-year-old infielder was coming off a disappointing .253/.298/.358, 27 double, 8 HR, +1.4 fWAR 2011 campaign, but as D.C. GM Mike Rizzo explained in a late March 2012 interview on MLB Network Radio, the '04 3rd Round pick had figured things out at the plate at the end of the previous season with some help from his hitting coach and manager Davey Johnson.
"He had a solid last six weeks," Rizzo said, "We stood him up, got him more erect at the plate, which allowed him to see the baseball more and [he] wasn't locking out his front side. I know this is getting kind of technical jargon, but it really freed him up to turn on pitches and to take balls to right field. Because for the majority of the season he was serving balls towards right field and he's a guy that has enough pop and sometimes has just enough pop to get him in trouble."
Over the last six weeks of the 2011 season, Desmond put up a .303/.340/.433 line with nine doubles, a triple and four home runs in 42 games and 190 plate appearances.
"I don't know, for whatever reason when I got here," the Nats' 69-year-old manager explained, "[Desmond] was kind of trying to serve the ball to right field, let the ball get deep and kind of flare these little hits into right. He'd occasionally get some hits, but I remembered him as hitting the ball where it's pitched. The ball's inside, you get it out front, the ball's away you go the other way and kind of drop that head in there."
Though Desmond returned for Spring Training in 2012 with some new ideas Davey Johnson wasn't completely happy with, the work the Nats' shortstop did late in 2011 and over the winter, as well as the aggressive approach he adopted at the plate began to pay off, especially when the Nationals' shortstop was dropped from the top of the order. Desmond had a .272/.294/.451 line as the Nats' leadoff man from April 5th through May 18th, at which point he was moved to the five and then six hole when Michael Morse returned to the lineup in June.
Between May 18th and the All-Star Break (July 8th), Desmond posted a .298/.337/.579 line with 13 doubles and 11 HRs in 44 games and 181 plate appearances, earning himself his first All-Star selection. More impressive was the fact that Desmond played the last few weeks before the breal with a strained oblique which caused him to hit the DL early in the second-half. Upon returning to the lineup, after nearly a month off, Desmond picked up where he left off and finished the season with a .309/.364/.530 line, nine doubles and eight home runs from August 17th through the end of the regular season (Oct 3rd).
When Desmond's third full major league season ended, the shortstop had a .292/.335/.511 line in 130 games and 547 PAs with career highs in doubles (33 up from 27 the previous two seasons), home runs (25 up from 8 in 2011), RBIs (73 up from 49 in 154 G in 2011), wRC+ (128 up from 79 and 86 the two previous seasons), ISO (Isolated power) .218 (up from .124 in 2010 and .104 in 2011), and fWAR (+5.4 up from +1.4 and +1.3) in what ended up being another level of breakout season for the infielder who turned 27 in late September. The +5.4 fWAR was second-highest amongst qualified shortstops league-wide as was his wOBA (.362 to Ben Zobrist's .365). Desmond's 128 wRC+ were the league's second-highest, his 25 HRs were the most in the majors, the .218 ISO was the major's best amongst shortstops.
After hitting exactly one opposite field home run (in 2010) in his career before this season and having pulled all eight homers in 2011, Desmond hit nine of his 25 2012 HRs to center or right field, showing power to all fields. Asked early in the year to account for the sudden opposite field power, Desmond told MLB.com's Bill Ladson he wasn't sure of the reason for the surge. "'I don't know,'" Desmond said, "'I wish I did know, I'd do it more often.'" Davey Johnson told the reporter he had a good idea what was different with Desmond:
"'To him, it's being able to hit the ball hard where it's pitched,' Johnson said. 'Part of his problem last year was going too much the opposite way. Now he's handling balls on the inside part of the plate and he's pulling them, he's hitting balls more where they're pitched. He's looking to hit the ball hard, not guide it somewhere.'"
While everyone was talking about Desmond's production at the plate, the infielder also significantly cut down on the errors at short which plagued him throughout his career in the minors and his first three seasons in the major leagues. Desmond committed 34 Es in 2010 (21 fielding, 17 throwing), 23 in 2011 (19 FE, 4 TE) and cut that down to 15 (8 FE, 7 TE) in 2012, with a career-high .970 fld% and +6.5 UZR/150 (up from -5.5 in 2011 and -9.4 in 2010).
In the first postseason games of his career, Desmond was 7 for 19 in five games. After Game 1, Davey Johnson talked about the season his shortstop put together in 2012. "Ian Desmond is one heck of a player," Johnson told reporters, "For me, I mean, I would have to vote for Adam LaRoche to be the MVP, but it's a toss‑up with Ian Desmond, the things he's done. Got a lot of big hits, gifted defensively. I mean, he's been outstanding. I can't say enough about Ian. Kind of put him under my wing. He's been a fun project from two or three years ago when I was a consultant."
The talk heading into the offseason this year isn't about whether or not Desmond can continue to play short, but instead about the team possibly extending the infielder, who is arbitration-eligible this winter. MLB.com's Ladson reported last week that sources told him the two sides discussed a deal this season before Desmond ended the discussions so he could concentrate on what was happening on the field.
After this season the questions are about second base with Danny Espinosa struggling in 2012 while Steve Lombardozzi impressed. A strong start to the year in 2013 by 2011 1st Round pick Anthony Rendon and the chatter might grow louder, but there aren't too many questions about short after the year Desmond put together in 2012.