Exceeding expectations, especially when it comes to the highest levels of professional sports, isn’t easy.
To go above and beyond what is expected, however, they first have to be met; and for the Washington Nationals in 2013, the latter has been much easier said than done.
It shouldn’t have been this way for the on-paper favourites after loading up with the offseason acquisitions of an Established Closer (TM) in Rafael Soriano and a leadoff man in Denard Span, but at 48-47 and six games out of the NL East division lead (five out of the wild card), the year that super-sophomore Bryce Harper was to lead the Nats to the postseason as the best team in baseball simply hasn’t materialized.
Instead, it’s been the year of Ian Desmond (and the starting pitching) keeping the team afloat.
Amidst a roster of positional players full of disappointments, the Nationals shortstop is arguably the only player in the order from Opening Day who has taken the task of exceeding what he did last season head-on.
No, he doesn’t lead the team in average, OBP or slugging, but this is one of those cases where the most valuable player on the team simply isn’t the very best hitter. Instead, he’s proven his value to the team with longevity (team-leading 94 games), consistency (team-leading 100 hits), and maintaining the power that he showed last season (also team-leading 15 homers) even if he doesn’t hit in a prime spot in the order.
Moreover, he’s done as much (if not more) on the basepaths as the leadoff man, pacing right along with Span’s 10 stolen bases to lead the team and also scoring more runs (43 to 41).
Combine with with a — you guessed it — team-best (among regulars) 3.9 fielding runs above average at a premium position, and the image of why Desmond’s 3.5 fWAR is well outpacing that of any other National player not named Jordan Zimmermann (2.8) starts to really come into focus.
In short, he’s been Mr. Everything for the Nats: making the plays when needed, staying healthy when Harper was crashing into walls face-first and providing a Swiss army knife’s worth of tools at the plate to keep this flagging offense from hitting absolute rock bottom, especially when the 20-year old outfielder was absent.
And the work doesn’t get easier from here either.
It’s that kind of production from Desmond that these often-frustrating Nationals will continue to rely on if they hope to meet high expectations of being a playoff team, even as the gears start to fall into place with Harper returning to health and arrivals like Anthony Rendon.
To put it this way — if Desmond was a merely a replacement level player, Washington might just be fighting with the New York Mets for third place in the NL East right now. If that’s not a stark enough contrast to show why he’s been the first-half MVP for this team, I don’t know what is.