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Explaining why the Diamondbacks signed Daniel Descalso

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a good move because it looks like the team spent $1.5M on a player who barely improves the team. Perhaps there’s a more underlying reason.

The Diamondbacks surprised many with the signing of utility infielder Daniel Descalso. Descalso owns a career 78 wRC+ and has been a replacement level player his entire career. Despite that, he continues to find jobs at the MLB level. Part of that is due to his positional versatility, he can play 2B, SS, 3B, and LF in a pinch. He’s been a reliable bench player as part of the St. Louis Cardinals team that won the World Series in 2011 and the NL pennant in 2013.

The Diamondbacks infield, especially in the middle, is very right-handed at the plate. Nick Ahmed, Brandon Drury, Chris Owings, and Phil Gosselin were all right-handed batters, which made things a bit difficult to manage against the game’s best right-handed pitchers. Descalso balances it out a bit with his left-handed bat a bit on days either one of the three remaining players with Phil Gosselin the roster casualty for Descalso’s signing. I’m not suggesting a platoon because Descalso is not an MLB starter by any means. Instead we’ll see Descalso primarily in a pinch-hitter role while getting 1-2 starts a week at 2B or SS to give the starters a day off each.

One interesting stat nugget I did come across thanks to the Dbacks Nation is Descalso’s ability to perform in high leverage situations. As a bench player, he only has 159 career PA in such situations, but he seems to thrive in those situations. Descalso is a career .308/.396/.421 hitter in high leverage situations, good for a 124 wRC+. In that situation his walk rate increases to 13.1% and his strikeout rate drops to 16.5%. Because he’s a tough out in those situations, that means he’s able to keep at-bats going until he gets a pitch he can do something with. That’s resulted in a better batted-ball profile than his career averages. If the Diamondbacks do find themselves in a close game and need a lefty off the bench in a critical spot, they have a guy who can perform in that capacity.

Juxtaposition those numbers with the man he’s replacing, Phil Gosselin has a career wRC+ in high leverage situations of 63. In 2016, that number dropped to 11. Multiple times we saw Gosselin in a chance to put the Dbacks back in the game with 2 outs and runners in scoring position and strike out, starting on Opening Day. Gosselin puts up a career .262/.298/.357 mark in those situations with a strikeout rate of 24.5% and a walk rate of 6.1%. So while Gosselin and Descalso may be similar from a wins above replacement standpoint, situationally the Dbacks are better equipped to win games with this move because Descalso is a tougher out and is better when the game is on the line.

So if you’re Torey Lovullo and have Nick Ahmed batting in a critical situation against a tough right-handed pitcher, you might opt to go to the bench and that’s where Descalso comes in. Now if the opposing manager counters with a lefty, you probably have Chris Owings on the bench if necessary although Descalso can handle left-handed pitching a little bit. If there is a lefty in the bullpen, Lovullo probably pinch hits someone else in that situation to try to avoid unnecessarily burning Descalso. So while defensively and offensively Descalso looks like a lateral move from Phil Gosselin at 3 times the cost, the Dbacks are upgrading their bench by adding a guy who can perform in high leverage situations. While it might not result in an increase in wins if you go by WAR, it certainly will likely contribute to an extra win or two anecdotally just for Descalso likely coming through in a situation where Gosselin has historically failed.