Here are some things Ian Desmond has going for him: he’s been an All-Star; he’s won three consecutive Silver Slugger awards at shortstop, fewer in total than only Barry Larkin (9), Cal Ripken Jr. (8), Alex Rodriguez (7), and Derek Jeter (5); he’s twice been a Gold Glove finalist; he’s the only player in baseball to have topped 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in each of the last three seasons; he showed up on MVP ballots in 2012; this very season, he’s batting .300/.354/.443 and comfortably leading the Nationals in batting average, hits, and doubles.
On the other hand in each of the last four seasons he’s finished with the most or second-most errors at shortstop in all of baseball. And so far this year, he’s been so messy with the ball it’s starting to look something like the yips.
In baseball, “the yips” generally refers to a player suddenly losing the ability to accurately throw a ball from here to there, as in the case of Rick Ankiel, who started his long baseball career as a promising pitcher before all at once and utterly losing the ability to pitch the ball to within several feet of the catcher’s mitt, or with Jon Lester, who refuses to throw over to first base because when he does, bad things happen. The term has use across sports—it’s been used to describe everything from putting inaccuracy in golf to free throw shooting in basketball—as a reference to instances when a strange and unknowable disconnect between mind and body (or specifically between psyche and body) suddenly renders a participant wildly incapable of completing a simple and core function of their sport. Where there was once adequacy, if not strength, there is now catastrophic inability.
If the yips are defined by that bizarre hitch somewhere between muscle memory and its actual execution, and the resulting hopeless uselessness, then it needn’t necessarily manifest solely as throwing inaccuracy. It could show up as, say, the sudden inability to cleanly field a grounder, or maybe a persistent inability to transfer the ball from glove to throwing hand. Maybe even a sudden inability to track a pop fly. Or, who knows, maybe even all of the above! Ian Desmond has all of the above. It’s like comprehensive, systemic yips. Stage three yips.
“It sucks,” Desmond said last week, after two bloopers in a single inning led to three unearned Boston runs. “I don’t know what to do. I’m doing everything I can. Sitting here answering questions after every game is brutal. But, I mean, what am I gonna do?”
His eight errors(!) through 15 games(!!) are—this should go without saying—the most in Major League Baseball. His .882 fielding percentage is the lowest in baseball and a full 30 points lower than the next lowest shortstop. His errors have covered the full breadth of a shortstop’s defensive responsibilities: booted grounders, blown transfers, dropped pop-ups, and, of course, hilariously scattershot throws around the diamond. He’s charged under a shallow pop fly, calling away a stationed teammate, only to see the ball glance off his glove and roll sadly away. Many of his gaffes haven’t been counted as errors—he’s mishandled any number of potential double-plays (which, thank god MLB stat-keepers aren’t allowed to assume). It’s only a matter of time before he accidentally hurls the ball over the outfield wall and turns a dribbler into a four-base error (he does have a strong arm).
It’s been 99 years since any major league baseball player has had as many as 78 errors in a season. No player since 1936 has had as many as 62 errors. Exactly one player (Robin Yount) has had as many as 44 errors in a single season since 1952. Ian Desmond, bless his heart, is on pace for 86 errors in 2015.
This will not be allowed to happen, for obvious reasons: even batting as well as he is, sooner or later the Nationals will have to give him a day or two off in the hopes that time away will cure what ails him in the field. And while Desmond is generally error-prone, he’s never had more than 34 in a season—some combination of simple regression and actual improvement will curtail this wonderful pace. (He started the 2013 season with four errors in his first five games before committing just 15 over the remainder of the season.)
But! There are two reasons for hope here Desmond is absolutely an everyday player, an excellent hitter on a quality team that, at full strength, should be able to absorb the unearned runs dude is just giving away. More importantly, guys: eight errors in 15 games! There are 11 MLB teams—whole teams!—with 8 or fewer errors. Ian Desmond has as many errors as the Braves and Rays combined. Something terrible and magical is happening at shortstop for the Washington Nationals.
It’s bad to root for a person to fail, I suppose, but baseball is a counting sport and the season is long and slow. Keep going, Ian Desmond! Aim high, both with your ambitions and your throws to first! Reach for the stars, especially when reaching for grounders.
Chris Thompson lives in Virginia, writes about the Wizards, and spends too much of his meager income on meals out. He’s also written for Vice Sports and The Classical, and can be found on Twitter @MadBastardsAll.