The improvement of Ian Desmond's defense
Ian Desmond made three errors in his first four games as the Nationals' starting shortstop, which invited the same worry that dogged him during his minor league career -- he could make any spectacular play but he too often botched routine ones. From those first days of his rookie season until now, Desmond has alleviated any concern about his defense.
Desmond has not made an error since his ragged start, a string of 61 chances across 16 games in which Desmond has vacuumed every ball hit to him, difficult, easy and in between. It is the longest stretch of his professional career without an error - in 2008, he set a personal best by going 14 games without an error for Class AA Harrisburg.
"The first couple games, I'm 24 years old, making my big league debut as a starting shortstop," Desmond said. "Obviously, there's a little bit of emotion behind it. Now, that is all gone. I'm here, I'm playing, I'm part of the team. It's time to go."
Playing on major league quality fields for a full season for the first time has been a major factor. After finishing up their series with the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, Nats infield coach Pat Listach told Desmond, "This field is not as good as some others, but you're making the plays look easy."
"It's a lot better than what I used to play on," Desmond responded.
It's typical for shortstops to make fewer errors once they are first called to the majors, when they're playing on better-manicured fields. Desmond believes that's the main difference between his high error total in the minors -- 28 in 495 chances last season -- and his recent consistency with the Nationals.
"It's a lot easier to play on good fields," Desmond said. "That's the only part of it. The fields that we play on in the minor league are terrible. A couple teams got good ones, and everything else is brutal. I'm playing the same exact way I always have."
Desmond has paid special attention to his defense. Five hours before tonight's game, Desmond asked Listach to hit him some groundballs. "It's not like anybody is forcing him to do it," Listach said. "He's coming to me saying, 'Let's work.' So he's having fun doing it. In the minors, it was like somebody was forcing him to do it, like it was punishment or something. Now he knows, this is my job. This is what it takes at this level."
In particular, Desmond has improved throwing the ball to second base on double plays. On balls hit in the hole to his right, he used to throw overhand, which wasted precious time. Now, at Listach's urging, Desmond fields the ball low and fires a sidearm flip from inches off the ground. He just began making the throw, but it seems as though he's done it for years.
"He's making it look easy," Listach said. "The guys that have played shortstop before, we know it's not that easy."
Listach called Desmond the best athlete on the Nationals team and "one of the best shortstops in the game, defensively." Manager Jim Riggleman said Desmond defensive ceiling is "unlimited." His range has been part of the improvement from Nationals pitchers. His 4.92 chances per nine innings, a measure of how balls he can get to, ranks 10th in the majors among shortstop.
"It's not so much errors," Riggleman said. "There's going to be some errors. It's plays that are made that maybe some other people don't make that's impressive about Desmond. Last year - not so much at shortstop, but everywhere - there were plays that weren't made that aren't scored errors that were killing our pitching staff. Guys are making plays now, Desmond especially."
As Desmond has steadied at shortstop, his confidence - and the team's confidence in him - has risen.
"He's special," Listach said. "You can't have that mindset, 'I don't want the ball hit to me.' He's out there, he wants the ball hit to him. And we do, too."
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