When former general manager Jim Bowden compared Ian Desmond to future Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter, his team had yet to play a game as the Washington Nationals. Fans had never heard of Desmond, a 19-year-old Floridian who was taken in the third-round of the 2004 amateur draft.
Fans thought Bowden was out of his mind.
From 2005—the year of Bowden’s comparison—through 2008, Desmond played nothing like Derek Jeter. In fact, he played nothing like a prospect. He couldn’t field and seemed to make up for it by not hitting either. He was still playing for Class-A Potomac in 2007 and injuries took their toll.
In five minor league seasons, he produced a career .248 batting average. When 2009 began, Danny Espinosa—and not Desmond—was the club’s top shortstop prospect.
Then, all of a sudden, Desmond “got it.”
Splitting time between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse, Desmond batted .330/.401/.477 last season, hitting seven homers and driving in 32 runs.
In a September call-up, he batted .280-4-25 in just 152 at-bats (.280-15-92 over a full season).
Desmond beat out Cristian Guzman last spring and has played as well as anyone had hoped, perhaps even better.
So what about that comparison to Jeter? Was Bowden right five springs ago?
Let’s take a look.
In 2,371 minor league at-bats, Derek Jeter batted .308/.384/.418, hitting a home run every 111 at-bats. Desmond, in 1,777 games, hit .260/.326/.388 with a homer every 47 at-bats.
Clearly, Jeter was a much better minor league hitter, though Desmond showed more extra-base power.
Defensively, their minor league statistics were almost identical.
Jeter played 451 minor league games and committed 133 errors, one every 3.33 games. Desmond played in 638 minor league games and made 189 errors, or one every 3.33 games.
Desmond did have a better range factor in the minors, though, 4.47 to Jeter’s 4.40.
Both players had a September call-up before taking over as their respective team’s everyday shortstop the next season. Let’s compare their offensive production at the May 29th mark of that first season:
Runs Batted In:
Batting Average/On Base Pct./Slugging Pct.
At this stage of the season, Jeter was able to draw more walks and hit for a higher on-base percentage but Desmond has shown more power, having more doubles, home runs, and RBI.
There is no question that Desmond, at least offensively, is the equal of Jeter at this early stage in their careers.
Now let’s compare Jeter’s rookie-season statistics with Desmond’s:
Runs Batted In:
Batting Average/ On-Base Pct. / Slugging Pct.
Jeter batted at or near the top of the Yankees lineup in 1996 while Desmond hit mostly at the bottom of the Nationals lineup in 2010. However, when he was moved up to batting second, his production blossomed. Desmond hit .326/.359/.489 in 201 at-bats.
That would explain some of the difference between the players' on-base percentages and batting averages (Desmond, batting seventh or eighth, sees far fewer quality pitches than Jeter did batting first or second).
That said, it is clear that Desmond will never have the high batting average and on-base percentage of Jeter, but he will hit for a little more power.
In his young career, Desmond is averaging 14 home runs and 77 RBI over a 162-game season while Jeter has averaged 17 homers and 81 RBI (but it took Jeter four seasons to begin to show the power that Desmond is showing right now).
Defense is where the comparisons between Jeter and Desmond gets interesting.
Again, let’s compare Jeter’s first full season in the major leagues with what Desmond is projected to do this season:
RTOT (number of runs above or below average player at that position)
Range Factor (the player’s defensive range)
A couple of things stand out here. First, Desmond makes a lot of errors. Second, his far superior range allows him to finish more double plays and get to balls that Jeter can’t get to, saving his team some of the runs that his errors allow.
If you look just at errors and fielding percent, Jeter wins hands down in the players' first-year comparison.
But if you look at all the factors, Desmond has the potential to be a very special defensive short stop.
Can Ian Desmond cut down on that ugly error total? Yes, I think so. Jeter once committed 56 errors in the minor leagues, so if Jeter can get better, so can Desmond.
So, was Jim Bowden right that spring day in Viera Florida when he said flat out that Desmond reminded him favorably of the Yankees’ all-star shortstop?
Derek Jeter is a one-of-a-kind shortstop, so any comparison to him is patently unfair. That said, it is conceivable that Ian Desmond could have a career similar to—but not as good as—Jeter.
If Desmond’s power increases like Jeter’s did, Desmond could become an above-average defensive shortstop with 20 home run power.
Let’s forget Bowden’s comparison to Jeter and just say that Ian Desmond returned from the abyss of unfulfilled minor league talent and has helped transform a 100+ loss team into a franchise that is on the periphery of respectability.
And that’s good enough for me.