Dan Descalso's Damnable Discipline


Descalso during his time in Springfield. - COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG
  • commons.wikimedia.org
  • Descalso during his time in Springfield.
I've been a big supporter of Dan Descalso, the Cardinals' young second basemen/utility infielder, for quite a while now. He was drafted in 2007 in the third round, and I happened to see him play in a minor league game the next year and came away very impressed. He was relatively new to the second base position, having played mostly third in college, but he had range and arm both to spare, as well as hands that looked above-average to my eye. What I liked most about him, though, was his swing. It was balanced and fluid, and he combined it with an intelligent, mature approach to hitting. 

After seeing him live I went back and watched his draft videos, as well as any other footage I could find of him, and I really started to warm up to the guy as a prospect. His big breakout came at Double A Springfield, as he posted a .925 OPS there in 2009. (Numbers posted at Springfield must be taken with a grain of salt due to their ballpark, but still.) He made his way to the big leagues last season for a cup of coffee, then won a roster spot this spring. 

The only problem is, Dan Descalso has been just godawful at the plate so far in 2011. His glovework has been nothing short of brilliant, particularly when he's filled in for David Freese at third base. On offense, though, he's looked almost helpless, and I'm afraid he'll be the guy heading back to the minors when Skip Schumaker gets off the DL. 

It's fairly easy to see why Descalso is struggling so badly at the plate right now. Throughout the minors, his walk rate hovered right around 9-10% for the most part. It was a bit lower in 2008 at Palm Beach, but other than that Descalso was pretty consistent. Now, a 9.5% walk rate isn't the stuff of legend, exactly; he isn't Bobby Abreu or Lance Berkman with those numbers. Still, for a contact hitter without a whole lot of power, a walk rate in that neighbourhood is certainly nothing to sneeze at. At the very least it speaks to a guy who isn't getting himself out on a regular basis. 

In 2011, Daniel Descalso's walk rate is 2.4%. He's walked exactly once in 42 plate appearances on the season. He's also striking out more often than at any other point in his career, whiffing in 17.1% of his trips to the plate. To put that in context, Descalso never struck out in more than 13% of his PAs in the minors. 

Now, of course, it's tempting to say this is just a player struggling to adjust to the major leagues. Or, if you're of a more pessimistic bent, to simply label Dan Descalso a AAAA player and go sign Nick Punto for another couple years. I'm not ready to go quite so fatalistic, though. 

The problem with Descalso at the moment is that he's swinging at literally everything. Okay, not literally everything, but damn near. What's especially notable is how many pitches he's swinging at out of the strike zone. When you swing at balls, the outcome is rarely good, and Dirty Dan's performance to date could be held up as Exhibit A quite easily. 

For the season, Descalso is swinging at almost 60% of all pitches he sees. That's a huge percentage. For reference, a player like Albert Pujols, with his outstanding plate discipline (though not quite as excellent in 2011), generally swings at somewhere in the neighbourhood of 42-44% of the pitches he sees. Yadier Molina, never known as a player particularly eager to take a pitch, usually swings at somewhere between 50-52%. 

Much worse than the overall number of swing Descalso is taking, though, is the type of pitches he's swinging at. He's swinging at 47% of the pitches he sees outside the strike zone in 2011. (Characterized as O-Swing%.) When you swing at almost half the balls a pitcher throws up there you can't possibly be successful. Again for reference, Pujols's highest O-Swing% for his career is 27.5%, which he posted last year. (One of his worst seasons by any measure, by the way.) He's typically in the 18-22% range. Molina's O-Swing numbers have varied from a low of 19.0% in his rookie season to 31.4% in 2008. This season he's at 36.3%, and not hitting well at all for the most part. 

Looking at those numbers it's easy to see Descalso's problem. I'm sure the book is out on him, and the book says don't bother throwing him a strike. He'll swing at pretty much whatever you chuck up there, so don't give him anything even remotely hittable. He seems especially vulnerable to shoulder-high fastballs at the moment, as if he's decided he wants to try and be Jim Edmonds, only without the good stuff Edmonds brought to the offense. 

The bigger question -- and the much tougher one to answer -- is why Descalso is swinging at everything this season. It's such a marked departure from the way he played in the minors, as well as the general hitting philosophy the Cardinals seem to be subscribing to this season. Mark McGwire has preached patience, even if the manager wants to argue semantics, and most of the team is practicing what he preaches. Descalso, on the other hand, goes to the plate hacking away madly, and more often than not gets himself out on a pitch nowhere near the strike zone. 

Perhaps he's just pressing, trying to make an impression early in the season on a manager notoriously tough on young players. Maybe he's struggling with limited playing time, having been accustomed to playing every day the rest of his life. It's tough sometimes for young players to adjust to the bench life, where at-bats are sparse and tough to predict. Or, maybe he's just another AAAA player, too good for Triple A but not a major leaguer. I don't think that last one is true, but it wouldn't be the first time a player has failed to make the jump to the big leagues. 

If Dirty Dan Descalso wants to stay in St. Louis, he's going to need to learn to let the bad pitches go by, and quick. No one can be successful the way he's approaching his at-bats right now. 

Author's Note: This post was written yesterday afternoon, right around five pm or so, or approximately two and a half hours before Dan Descalso went out and had himself a huge game against the Astros. It doesn't necessarily prove anything, of course, other than the fact I still have the worst timing of any human being on the face of the Earth. Great to see him collect a few big hits, though. Still, you'd think he could have held off for like, a day. Sigh. 

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