The Quietest Swing-Changer

Last week, as part of a three-team trade, the Indians sent Edwin Encarnacion to the Mariners, and the Mariners sent Carlos Santana to the Indians. Now, that part of the trade was at least partially motivated by money, but both Encarnacion and Santana remain players who could and should have roles on competitive ballclubs. Encarnacion is a 1B/DH in his 30s, and he’s coming off a 115 wRC+. Santana is a 1B/DH in his 30s, and he’s coming off a 109 wRC+. They were above-average hitters, if also diminished from their peaks.

On Tuesday, the Cubs signed veteran utility guy Daniel Descalso for two years and $5 million. Descalso is a versatile sort in his 30s, and he’s coming off a 111 wRC+. And as a matter of fact, it should be even higher, since Descalso played for the Diamondbacks, and our park factors haven’t yet accounted for their newly-installed humidor that turned Chase Field into a more neutral hitting environment. You’re probably not used to having to think about Daniel Descalso, but he’s quietly breathed new life into his career.

I’m not going to write about this at length. I just want to show you a few plots and a table. Here’s a plot of Descalso’s year-to-year wRC+ marks:

Descalso just had the first three-digit wRC+ of his life. That happened over more than 400 plate appearances, and, again, that wRC+ sells his actual productivity a little bit short. Here’s a similar plot, but this time for isolated power, which is the difference between slugging percentage and batting average:

Related to that, it’s not hard to spot the trend in Descalso’s ground-ball rates:

Descalso had himself a miserable season in 2015. It was the kind of season that stood a chance of tanking his career. In an effort to make more of himself, Descalso decided to revamp his swing. That’s nothing unique anymore — lots of players decide to revamp their swings, especially when they’re right around the big-league fringes. But when you think about the bigger, well-known stories, you think about stars, like Justin Turner or Josh Donaldson or Mitch Haniger or J.D. Martinez. Descalso has been something of a hidden success, his turnaround being even quieter than that of, say, Kurt Suzuki. This table compares Descalso before and after the revamp:

Daniel Descalso vs. Himself
Year(s) PA wRC+ K-BB% ISO GB% Hard% HR/FB% Swing% Contact%
2013 – 2015 751 72 10% 0.111 46% 25% 5% 47% 81%
2016 – 2018 1110 97 10% 0.175 37% 37% 11% 41% 77%

The improvement is undeniable, and, if anything, what Descalso did in 2018 suggests he’s still growing. He trimmed another several points off his ground-ball rate, while batting more often than he had since 2012. Descalso, for a while, was just another anonymous bench player. He’s still a bench player, perhaps a semi-regular, but now he’s far more of a weapon. For fun, watch him go deep off Clayton Kershaw!

It’s fun when you get to see guys like Turner or Donaldson get to their ceilings. Those players maxed out their skillsets, and they turned into superstars. It’s no less satisfying to see someone like Descalso approach his own ceiling. Descalso doesn’t have the tools to turn into a superstar, not if we’re being realistic, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t stepped forward in a meaningful way. By putting in the work and staying open-minded, Descalso rescued himself from what likely would’ve been a series of non-roster invitations to spring training. He’s earned the security he has.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

You can make the case that Descalso was among the most valuable off-season signings if you account for salary vs. production vs. risk.

If 2018 was a fluke he’s still a 1ish WAR utility infielder (for which 2.5M/yr is pretty cheap). At best, 2018 is real, and he’s basically Carlos Santana that can play a fine 2B and 3B 1.5-2 WAR/160. I’m very surprised a team like the A’s, Astros, Indians (all of whom could use some IF depth iirc) didn’t jump on him. I don’t think 2 yr $10M would have been over paying.
His career platoon splits are also very even so he can even play vs. lefties.

Jetsy Extrano
5 years ago
Reply to  RealCarlAllen

If he’s a live Carlos Santana at 2nd that’s a good bit more than 2 wins, innit?

Let’s see Santana was 2 WAR last year by hitting wRC+ 109 at 150 G of 1B, and moving up to 2B is +15 positional runs.

So 3.5 WAR, or just say 3.

5 years ago
Reply to  RealCarlAllen

(probably dumb) Question: Is WAR/160 a common way to roughly estimate part-time players if they were to become everyday players? Or is there another metric or way I should be thinking about this process (i.e., estimating guys who may see an uptick in PA / games played)? Thanks.

5 years ago
Reply to  dtpollitt

It’s a good place to start, at the very least. Usually doesn’t really work like that in real life, but estimating performance losses due to “merely” higher workload isn’t really well developed other than “more than zero”.