- 2018 rating: 7.28
- 2017 rating: 7.08
- 2018 salary: $2,000,000
- 2018 performance: 423 PA, .238/.353/.436, 13 HR, 39 XBH, 106 OPS+, 111 wRC+, 1.1 bWAR, 1.6 fWAR
- 2019 status: Free agent
After a successful 2017 season in a super utility bench role, the Arizona Diamondbacks exercised their $2,000,000 club option over Daniel Descalso for the 2018 campaign. It was a bit of a no brainer given his ability to play multiple positions in both the infield and outfield, and as we would see both in 2017 and 2018, pitch in emergency situations. Even more valuable than his defensive versatility was his unwavering ability to produce in high leverage situations. Every team needs a player of his ability for a bench role at his price point.
Torey Lovullo did not make it a secret how much he appreciated Descalso’s contributions to the team, and for the second straight season the utility man appeared in more than 130 games. It’s the first time he reached that mark in consecutive seasons since 2011-2012. Daniel rewarded his manager’s faith with the best season of his career. He had career highs in nearly every metric both advanced and traditional. Put bluntly, he was one of the lone bright beacons of the disappointing 2018 Arizona Diamondbacks. Daniel Descalso is never going to win an MVP award, but he is as good of a bench utility player a team could hope for.
How was he able to reach career highs in a multitude of metrics? What changed in how he approached the game? Queue the groans from the audience, Daniel Descalso did a much better job this season keeping the ball off the ground and driving pitches resulting in more extra base hits. His ground ball percentage plummeted to a career low 30.1%. Before he came to Arizona, he was never below 43% and was at 38.9% in 2017. Did hitting coaches in Arizona make changes to his swing that produced better results? Now to be clear, hitting the ball in the air more in itself is not going to produce better results. A weak fly ball is still likely to produce an out. However, Descalso wasn’t hitting weak flyballs. His hard contact % skyrocketed to 43.1%. Again, this was not the type of player he was before he came to Arizona having never produced a figure above 30%. He was at 37% in 2017.
Those figures I referenced above were sourced from Fangraphs. Statcast paints a slightly different picture when it comes to hard hit %, but there is another tool available on Baseball Savant to drive this point home. You may have heard Michael McDermott and Sean Testerman mention the term “barrels” in the past. It’s a way to evaluate how well a player is putting the barrel of the bat on the ball resulting in good contact through a combination of launch angle and exit velocity. Unfortunately, the data only goes back to 2015, but Descalso’s 2018 season is a clear outlier. He had 25 barrels in 2018 which was more than his 2015 through 2017 seasons combined. Descalso’s average launch angle from 2015-2017 was 11.3 degrees, but in 2018 it was a whopping 19.1 degrees. I’ll repeat that it’s not enough to get the ball into the air more if you aren’t hitting it hard as well. The launch angle revolution is not beneficial to every player, but it was for Descalso in 2018 because he was hitting the ball harder. His average exit velocity from 2015-2017 was 86.7 MPH, but in 2018 he turned up the heat to 89 MPH. He’s never going to lead the league in dingers or slug it out in the home run derby, but it’s obvious that he has benefited from making changes to his swing.
Where he really shines is in late and close situations as defined by Baseball Reference when the game is in the 7th inning or later and the score separated by a run or less. Some people don’t believe in the split or that it’s an actual skill, but Daniel has demonstrated a knack to produce time after time when it matters. sOPS+ on Baseball Reference is a player’s OPS split for a given situation relative to the entire league’s split in the same situation adjusted by run environment. 100 is average, anything below 100 is worse than average, anything above 100 is better. Simple enough. In 2018, Daniel Descalso’s sOPS+ in late and close situations was 126. It’s not a fluke for him either. He was at 174 in 2017, 150 in 2016, 128 in 2015, and 136 in 2014. You get the point. He is really good at the plate when his team needs him the most, but what are our examples of this? Where does this show up browsing over his game logs?
Fortunately, Fangraphs has a metric called “clutch” that measures how well a player performed in high leverage situations.
It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Descalso ended up with a score of 1.69 for the 2018 season. That puts him on the cusp of excellence when it comes to clutch as defined by Fangraphs. It’s easiest for us to browse his game logs with his highest win probability added, or WPA+, in order to find these moments in action.
On May 8th the Diamondbacks were surprisingly eight games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers, had already won seven out of ten games against them in the season, and had not lost their first eleven series of the season. They were squaring off against the eventual National League Champions in Los Angeles, and it turned out to be a wild extra inning affair. Enrique Hernandez homered in the bottom of the 9th off of Brad Boxberger to tie the game at five apiece, the closer’s first blown save on the young season. That’s where our man in question comes in at the top of the 12th. Alex Avila and Paul Goldschmidt reached base ahead of him, but David Peralta and A.J. Pollock could not do the same resulting in two on and two out in a tie game. Sounds high leverage to me. Let’s roll the tape.
It wouldn’t be the only time during the 2018 season Descalso came through late and close against the Dodgers, although the outcome for the Diamondbacks wasn’t as nice next go round. Of course, it came during their horrendous September collapse which should tell you all you need to know. He hit a solo home run in the top of the 9th to break a single run tie. That should have been enough to lift Arizona to victory, but Andrew Chafin and Archie Bradley were unable to seal the deal culminating in a Matt Kemp walkoff double.
Equally as pleasing as his ability to produce in high leverage situations is his versatility in the field. Twice in 2017 he was called upon to pitch in blowouts to save the bullpen, and he’d be asked to do the same in 2018. The most memorable instance for me, because I had to recap the darn thing, was the July 11th debacle against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Thanks Shelby Miller. Before that game, Descalso had an ERA of 0.00 in 3 pitching appearances over 2 and 2⁄3 innings for the Diamondbacks. Heck he hadn’t even allowed a single baserunner, but that would change against the Rockies. Daniel was forced to come into the game in the bottom of the 4th with the D’backs already trailing by the whopping score of 14-1. The Rockies were no less kind to him tallying four hits two of which were long balls.
All things told, it was a successful two years for the left handed journeyman in the desert. He set a variety of career highs in 2017 and bested them in 2018. He’s now a free agent having completed his two year agreement with Arizona, and there has not been much indication that the team is looking to bring him back. However, being that he is only 32 years old he is bound to latch on with another team in a similar capacity. It has been mentioned that the St. Louis Cardinals, the team he was drafted by and debuted in the majors with, might be interested in a reunion with him as they push to return to the playoffs.
I realize that I just wrote a fairly glowing review of a utility player that’s essentially been replacement level in terms of WAR over his career, but most teams would love to have a Daniel Descalso on their bench. Torey Lovullo has talked in the past of having players in the clubhouse that are an extension of the manager, and that he is not opposed to having players manage themselves from time to time. Descalso fits that role as a manager’s player with his “veteran presents”. His ability to produce in high leverage when it matters most is what sets him apart from other utility bench players.