When you think of the most improved hitters of the past few seasons, who comes to mind? Christian Yelich, Yonder Alonso, Whit Merrifield, Francisco Lindor, and Matt Carpenter may be some big names you think of. But under all of these notable breakouts, most of which are chalked up to the infamous “fly-ball revolution,” there are still some hitters that have made significant improvement flying under the radar.
One player that fits this description is the recently signed utility man Daniel Descalso. An eight year major league veteran that can play all infield positions and the corner outfield serviceably. Most notably, he’s a career below average hitter coming off an above average season. In the three years prior to 2018, totaling 806 plate appearances, Descalso hit for a 78 wRC+, good for 262nd out of 285 hitters with at least 800 plate appearances in that time span.
Obviously, such improvement leads to questioning of what changed. Well, like the aforementioned fly-ball revolution benefactors above, Descalso added offensive value from hitting the ball in the air more.
As it is in a lot of cases, fewer ground balls results in more power.
The improvement can also be seen in the quality of contact. Among the 285 hitters with at least 800 plate appearances from 2015 to 2017, Descalso ranked 191st in hard hit rate. In 2018, among hitters with at least 300 plate appearances, he ranked 40th out of 278 hitters. Combine this with his improved walk rate (one of the more improved walk rates of 2018), and you get a good recipe for a career year with the bat.
This fit between Descalso and the Cubs is a very easy one to see. Last season, they employed the services of Tommy La Stella, another utility bat, who was one of the more frequent pinch hitters in the National League. The problem was, he wasn’t very effective, slashing .266/.340/.331 on the season, providing no power off the bench. He’s now with the Angels after a minor trade, and Descalso screams improvement in the department. A now above average bat, he can provide the same lineup flexibility that La Stella did with a greater impact at the plate.
Partially because of La Stella’s inability to hit left-handed pitching (24 plate appearances, .111/.273/.111 slash line), the Cubs struggled against lefties in the later innings. Now with Descalso coming off the bench, a .286/.365/.524 hitter against left-handed pitching last year, the Cubs can get more creative with the roster in the later innings.
At two-years/$5 million, it’s hard to dislike the value the Cubs are getting here with this signing. The biggest and perhaps only question can come from Descalso’s lack of a successful track record. With a sudden change to his offensive profile, he could be one scouting adjustment away from falling back to below average hitting. But for the moment, the Cubs have themselves the ideal National League bench piece.