How much did the Qualifying Offer system hurt Ian Desmond?

One day later, it’s still shocking Ian Desmond settled for a one year, $8 million contract only two years after rejecting a 5 year, $89.5 million extension from the Nats, calling it a “terrible deal.”

In the immediate aftermath of Desmond’s signing, the conventional wisdom seems to be coalescing around the idea he was disproportionately hurt by MLB’s bizarre qualifying offer system, requiring the team that signs him to forfeit a draft pick in next June’s draft. Yesterday, in my reaction piece to the Desmond signing, I addressed the role the qualifying offer played in Desmond’s depressed market value.

The qualifying offer, however, only partially explains why the market for Ian Desmond was so soft this winter. Twenty different free agents received qualifying offers last November and all of them found homes before Desmond (12 of them signed with new teams requiring the forfeiture of a draft pick). It says something about Desmond’s perceived value that the Rangers only signed him to a one year contract. Even after crossing the threshold where they decided to give up a draft pick to sign him, Texas still didn’t think he was worth a second or third year.*

*It’s worth noting by signing Desmond to one year deal, Texas retains the option of offering Desmond a qualifying offer next offseason and maybe recouping their lost draft pick. But the qualifying offer salary next year will be more than double Desmond’s $8 million salary this year, making it far from certain Texas would offer one.

The more credible explanation for Desmond’s depressed market value is his poor performance. As noted yesterday, Desmond struck out at a rate of 29.2% last season, a staggering number considering his on base percentage was only .290. Put simply, he failed to put the ball in play more often than he reached base. This low contact/low on base skillset is increasingly inconsistent with the trend around baseball. Consider, for example, the strikeout rates for the starting nine World Series Champion Kansas City Royals and compare it to Desmond’s 29.2% last year:

Lorenzo Cain – 16.2%

Mike Moustakas – 12.4%

Eric Hosmer – 16.2%

Alex Gordan – 21.8%

Kendrys Morales – 16.1%

Jarrod Dyson – 16.4%

Salvador Perez – 14.8%

Ben Zobrist – 11.4%

Desmond brings a high-risk/high-reward approach to hitting, common in the modern era. But as power pitchers inundate the game and strikeouts reach historic levels, teams are increasingly turning to an old school approach, players who can put the ball in play and avoid giving the opponents easy outs.

While the qualifying offer certainly dimmed Desmond’s value, it’s instructive to look at the team that didn’t need to forfeit a draft pick to sign him—the Nats. After trading Yunel Escobar this winter, the Nats actually had an opening in the middle infield, and for much of the winter could have brought Desmond back to play SS or 2B. Instead, the Nats followed baseball’s trend, turning to Daniel Murphy and his high-contact style of hitting. Murphy only struck out 7.1% of his plate appearances last year, less than a one fourth of Desmond’s rate. Oh, and the Nats had no problem forfeiting a draft pick to bring him in.

As I wrote yesterday, there were many factors why Desmond’s market fell over $80 million in two years. By focusing on the qualifying offer and ignoring everything else, people are failing to see the full picture. If Desmond doesn’t see the full picture either, he may have the same problem again next season.




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