The search to learn more about Ian Desmond and what makes the Texas Rangers’ center fielder an All-Star player can take an inquiring mind down several different paths.
None of those paths runs into a dead end. Instead, they converge on a wide-open highway that goes on and on, just like the answers from those who couldn’t stop themselves as they talked about Desmond.
The Rangers, like the Washington Nationals before them, can find nothing negative to say about him. They have only been around him four months, but it took only a few days for them to realize they had an elite player in their midst.
Desmond will be among the 68 players in San Diego on Tuesday for the 87th All-Star Game as one of two Rangers selected to the American League team. It’s almost a guarantee that the AL reserve will be the first one to put on his uniform.
Just as left-hander Cole Hamels has propped up the starting rotation, Desmond has sparked the offense and been the team’s MVP some four months after he was signed off the free-agent scrap heap.
All while playing a completely new position.
But the reasons behind his sparkling first half lie in Desmond’s foundation, built on his family and faith and crafted with a tireless work ethic and a genuine level of humility that makes him an all-world teammate and a coach’s dream pupil.
The person with the least amount of nice things to say about Desmond is Desmond himself, who gives credit for his 2016 success to, well, everyone else in the organization.
When I came here, I wanted to improve on everything I’d done in the past, and that included being a better teammate and a better friend to the guys in here that I go on the field with every day. I just want to be the best teammate I can be and the best employee I can be for the Rangers.
All-Star outfielder Ian Desmond
“I think it’s the Rangers, really,” Desmond said. “I try to just keep my head down. Just keep my head down, keep moving forward, keep trying to help the team win games and keep trying to be the best teammate I can be.”
Even when Desmond slumps, as he did to start the season with only four hits in his first 41 at-bats (.098), he’s an All-Star teammate. That might be selling him short.
Those who are around him daily act as if Desmond is a Hall of Fame teammate.
His work ethic and the way he praises the contributions of his teammates while taking almost no credit leaves his teammates in awe.
The work ethic was apparent from his first day in spring camp, which came after four frustrating months in free agency tied to the anchor of a qualifying offer that made teams gun-shy and overly protective of their first-round draft pick.
Desmond, a career shortstop, didn’t sign with the Rangers until Feb. 29 after the full squad had already reported. And he signed a one-year deal worth $8 million to be their left fielder.
But on Day One he was in full uniform before his first swings in the batting cages around 7 a.m. After a few light days to get his legs under him, he worked with his new teammates in the morning, sneaked off to shag balls on the back fields during minor league batting practice to speed up his transition to the outfield, and then played a game.
“We knew he was a really good player, and we heard a lot of good things about him before he got here,” third baseman Adrian Beltre said. “But to see him every day, how he prepares himself, he comes early to the ballpark and he wants to do everything he can to help our team win ballgames.”
.347 Ian Desmond’s batting average entering Saturday since dipping to .098 during an April 14 game
The work hasn’t stopped. After the early slump and a few days off to sort out his swing, Desmond has been the Rangers’ best player, mostly at a second new position, center field, after second-year player Delino DeShields struggled early and was sent to Triple A Round Rock.
Since bottoming out below .100 during an April 14 game, Desmond has been batting .347 to lift his average to .318 entering Saturday. Since that date he has hit all 15 of his homers, driven in all but one of his 55 RBIs and stolen all but one of his 15 bases.
Defensively, teams learned quickly not to run on his arm, but some have done so anyway. Desmond, swayed in the off-season to leave the infield dirt, has six assists (tied for ninth in the league) from the outfield grass and can easily range into the gaps or back to the wall in pursuit of an out.
“If you look at him, he looks like he’s been playing there for 10 years,” Beltre said.
Desmond, though, scoffs at the notion that he has mastered center field. That humility, though, is what keeps the three-time Silver Slugger and two-time All-Star thirsty for knowledge of the game.
Though only 30, Desmond is playing his seventh full season. Where complacency might set in, he craves feedback because he always believes he can be better and is as astute a pupil as many have come across.
“The best ever,” hitting coach Anthony Iapoce said. “People give him too much credit for his athleticism and not enough credit for his love for the history of the game and the student that he is of the game and how he wants to win. Those, to me, come first.”
70.3 Percentage of balls that Ian Desmond has hit to center field and right field this season
Desmond has found success at the plate using the middle of the field and the opposite field more. The Rangers never urged him to do it, but his right-field-first approach has saved mini-slumps from becoming longer slumps.
The result has been setting a pace for the highest line-drive percentage of his career and only 29.8 percent of his batted balls to the pull side.
“He brought an on-a-mission approach, and that’s part of it,” Iapoce said. “It wasn’t we emphasized or asked him to do. We wanted him to be himself. I think that’s a product of the evolution of where he’s at in his career and becoming a better hitter.
“He talks a lot of times, too, where if he’s not feeling good that day, ‘I’m going to hit a ball hard to the second baseman even if I make an out.’ It’s like taking a step back, and a lot of times you end up getting a hit and you get that feeling back. He’s just getting hits, usually line to line.”
Within that is the attention Desmond pays to the smallest detail, a level of focus that only few can match and staying within the moment. Third-base coach Tony Beasley spent four seasons in the Nationals’ organization before joining the Rangers and has the most experience with Desmond.
Beasley said that Desmond’s preparation and work ethic are unmatched.
“He may be the benchmark,” Beasley said. “He’s just awesome on all fronts. His approach to baseball is just solid, but basically that’s his approach to life. He’s a disciplined guy on and off the field.”
And it’s genuine. He’s not working only when the cameras are on or deflecting credit to others when surrounded by reporters.
For instance, he was surprised when reporters learned of his extra work during spring training, far from the big league clubhouse, and then was surprised to be lauded for it.
He’s just awesome on all fronts. His approach to baseball is just solid, but basically that’s his approach to life. He’s a disciplined guy on and off the field.
Third-base coach Tony Beasley
After the game’s biggest hit in a late-May win at Cleveland, Desmond turned a moment for him to take credit into an opportunity to praise struggling slugger Prince Fielder. Fielder had hit a grounder to second base that moved Desmond to third and allowed him to score on a sacrifice fly.
After his 10th-inning go-ahead homer July 1 at Minnesota, his MLB-leading fifth after the seventh inning, Desmond praised assistant hitting coach Bobby Jones for reminding him a day earlier to get back to hitting the ball to right field.
“There are people, when they deflect and credit others, they’re doing it so that people give them credit for doing it,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “Ian, that’s just who he is.”
At his core, Desmond wants to be the best teammate he can be and, ultimately, that’s what drives the work ethic and humility.
“Certainly my faith has something to do with it, but beyond that I’ve been through some trials,” he said. “I can relate to the guy who’s been 0 for 20, and I can also relate to the guy who doesn’t get a lot of credit for behind-the-scenes stuff. I want to shine a light on them.
“When I came here, I wanted to improve on everything I’d done in the past, and that included being a better teammate and a better friend to the guys in here that I go on the field with every day. I just want to be the best teammate I can be and the best employee I can be for the Rangers.
“At the end of the day, for me, I think the best thing anybody can say is that, ‘He was a good teammate.’ There’s something for me that being a pro that means a lot to me. When people look across the field and say, ‘That guy was a pro,’ that’s what I want people to say about me. I don’t care about all the other stuff.”
Yet, he’ll be at Petco Park beginning Monday for the All-Star festivities on the strength of the players’ voting him onto the team as a reserve. That’s a higher honor for Desmond than being voted as a starter by fans, though he’d never admit it.
He also won’t say that his success this season while at a new position has surprised him, because he said that he doesn’t place expectations on any season. He just wants to work, be a great teammate and win.
The Rangers, though, have been surprised.
“He’s been way more than we expected,” said Beltre, who also often deflects praise. “It’s not even close. He’s been the MVP. He’s been the clutch guy. I don’t think we’d be where we’re at without him. There’s no doubt he’s been our best player.”
Said manager Jeff Banister: “Nobody thought they were going to have Ian Desmond on the All-Star team when the season started. He’s meant as much as Adrian. As far as his play on the field, All-Star-caliber performance. I look at it a little higher. I think he’s one of the guys in the running for MVP. If you take him off our team, we’re not the same team.”
87th All-Star Game, San Diego
6:30 p.m. Tuesday, KDFW/4