The Cubs just signed Daniel Descalso to a team-friendly deal worth a guaranteed $5 million over the next two years. If Descalso continues to hit like he did in 2018 going forward, the contract will become an absolute steal. But the question is whether the 32-year-old can provide the kind of offensive value he had failed to produce in previous seasons. There are many good reasons to believe that he can.
The most obvious of these is his swing change, which Nick Piecoro of AZCentral.com (before season) and Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs (after season) highlighted. What exactly did Descalso change? His point of contact. He actually started experimenting with his swing after a miserable 2015 season in which he finished with a .259 wOBA, but everything came together in 2018.
“Your window where the plane of your bat crosses the plane of the ball – mine was small, which leaves little margin for error,” Descalso told Piecoro. “Now I feel like my bat gets on plane a little bit sooner [emphasis mine] and stays through the zone longer. I feel like I have a better chance of making good, solid contact.”
I highlighted that particular portion of the above quote because it reminded me of something one of Descalso’s new teammates did to improve his own offensive performance. David Bote changed his point of contact in order to limit grounders and lift the baseball more. Such a change quickly amped up the career trajectory of both hitters [insert Spider-ManPointing.GIF], so maybe they can bond over their similar adjustments when spring training arrives.
“People preach launch angle and it’s literally contact point,” former Cubs assistant hitting coach Andy Haines told The Athletic (subscription) when discussing Bote’s changes. “The lift part of your swing is out in front of home plate, it’s not deep. When you hit the ball deep you’re a little more conservative, you’re going to hit the ball lower and use the whole field.”
Predictably, Descalso started to lift the ball more and spank more homers after intentionally making contact “sooner.” He’s continuing to evolve, too. Since 2016 — the year Descalso initiated swing changes and finished with a .332 wOBA — he’s more than doubled his home run rate.
|Season||Difference in xHR/100 PA Since 2016|
Season-by-season since 2016, Descalso gradually hit more high drives (red bar; HD%) and fewer batted balls on the ground (DB% & GB%). That, folks, is a recipe for success.
It’s not like Descalso is just lifting fastballs more, either. He’s legitimately lifting hard, breaking, and offspeed pitches with more frequency, as illustrated by the figure below that highlights his continual decrease in grounder rate by pitch type.
There have been rumblings that Descalso’s .342 wOBA this past season was just driven by an unsustainable hot stretch, but the data suggests he was consistent throughout the year. Sans a minor hiccup in August, Descalso’s xwOBA never dipped below league average. But for whatever reason, he struggled in late summer before rebounding in September.
Now let’s take a look at Descalso’s swing evolution over the last four seasons to see if we can discern any differences. Fair warning: this is just one GIF per year, so be careful not to over-interpret.
I can’t really see an obvious change if I’m being frank. But what the GIFs do show — especially in 2017 vs. 2015 where both pitchers are submariners throwing to the same zone– is the ability to lift the ball against pitches that he normally would smash into the ground.
2015 (before swing change)
2018 (final evolution)
It’s always hard to project aging hitters with unique career arcs like Descalso. But it’s undeniable that he identified a weakness in the 2015 offseason, addressed it by revamping his point of contact, and turned into an above-average hitter in a utility role. That is exactly what the Cubs lacked last season, and it’s why Tommy La Stella is gone and Descalso was signed to essentially take his place.