Ian Desmond and Stephen Drew: A Tale of Fantasy Decision-Making

by Eno Sarris //

When you’re in the middle of a cross-country move, you can be forgiven for making some quick decisions about your lineup. Actually, if you ask a certain spouse, you will not be forgiven for ‘wasting time on your fantasy teams when you could be helping with the move.’ Pfft. This is important work here.

In one league, the Fantasy Lounge Roto Champs League, I’ve won two of the past three years — but my team is struggling a little right now. I drafted Alcides Escobar as my shortstop, and even though it took such a late pick that the rest of my team is reasonably strong (up to sixth from last), I’ve been struggling at shortstop and replaced Escobar with Ian Desmond recently. Someone dropped Stephen Drew the other day, though, so I immediately put in the claim for Drew, washed my hands of Desmond, and felt like my team had just gotten much better.

Should I have taken a longer look? These two players sport different approaches and different experience levels. But the results have been very similar. Take a look at the comparison on the right from Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools and you’ll see that these are both bottom-echelon fantasy options in standard 12-team mixed leagues. Bloomberg Sports’ new
DesmondGrab.jpg Trade Analyzer rates the move as an average one that improves my team in only two stats.

Desmond is hitting just .247 for the year, with four home runs and six steals to date. It’s not luck on the batted ball keeping him down, as his BABIP is about neutral (.295).

Stephen Drew has fared slightly better from a fantasy perspective. He leads Desmond by a comfortable margin in batting average (.268). The rest of the numbers look similar, though: steals (Desmond leads six to five), runs scored (Drew leads 36 to 27), RBI (Desmond leads 33 to 28) and homers (both have four). Like Desmond, Drew can’t blame his low batting average on BABIP, as he sits at .315. Sound familiar?

While their fantasy stats look alike, there are different players under the hood here. Drew walks twice as much as Desmond and has a track record as a superior power hitter. Drew has a .143 isolated power number (ISO, or slugging percentage minus batting average) while Desmond has put up a .124 ISO. Desmond has struck out at a higher rate (20.7% to 18.0%, ML average is 20.5%) and is reaching outside the zone at a much higher rate (34.9% to 24.7%, ML average is 28.4%). The two players’ 2010 triple-slash stats tell the story:

Drew: .268/.334/.412
Desmond: .248/.287/.372

Frustratingly, though, walk rate is not positively correlated with batting average. So though we know that Drew has more real-life value because of his walks, and we can appreciate his selective approach, we cannot say that a player that walks like he does will necessarily put up a high batting average. Look at Adam Dunn for an anecdotal piece of evidence in that regard. We also know that while Drew has more ISO this year and in the past (.172 career ISO), he’s on a three-year decline in that statistic.

So if you can’t depend on Drew for a strong batting average, his power has been on a decline, and he doesn’t own as much natural speed as Desmond, why is picking up Drew and dropping Desmond a no-brainer? Well, for one, strikeout rate is negatively correlated with batting average, so there’s a notch in Drew’s belt. Another reason has to do with track record. As we wrote in the preseason, Drew has shown the ability to hit for power and batting average in his short career, and at 27 years old, he shouldn’t yet be in his decline.

Finally, Drew’s aggregate offensive numbers, and defense, point to a much better real-life player at this stage of their respective careers. While Desmond and Drew sport similar UZR figures, UZR only becomes a reliable indicator of defensive ability once you have three years of data to peruse. What we do know right now is that Desmond is on pace for more than 40 errors this season, including a recent game in which his sloppy D cost Stephen Strasburg a win. The fact that Desmond is also a rookie means there’s a non-zero chance he’ll be sent back to the minors if he keeps struggling too. 

If you’re looking for a fill-in shortstop in shallower leagues, or a player to hold in deeper ones, choose Drew over Desmond.

For more on Ian Desmond, Stephen Drew, Alcides Escobar, and other shortstop options, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.  

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