With little to latch onto this past offseason in terms of signings, Cubs fans — and maybe the Cubs front office as well — tried to convince themselves that Daniel Descalso would be the catalyst the broken offense needed. But after a hot start that reinforced his historically good clutch performance, the veteran utilityman looks eerily similar, if not much worse, to the imminently forgettable hitter he was prior to an unexpected breakout last season.
The fact that he’s still on the roster is a testament to the lack of position-player depth in the upper minors for the Cubs, and perhaps to leadership’s stubborn loyalty. So what has plagued Descalso at the plate so far this season?
He has been walking at around his career norm, but he has struck out at a higher rate than ever. Last season saw him trade a little extra swing-and-miss for more power, not at all uncommon in today’s game with a more centered pull in the ball. The problem now is that Descalso’s power has evaporated while he’s still stuck with the whiffs.
CI’s Brendan Miller noted back in December that Descalso had begun to alter his swing as far back as 2016 in order to hit the ball in the air with greater frequency. So far this year, however, Descalso’s 50.5% groundball rate represents a massive jump from the 30.1% he posted last season. That’s part and parcel with a decrease in his launch angle from 19.1 degrees last season to 10.3 this year.
He’s been hitting the ball on the ground much more and making less hard contact, a sure recipe for anemic numbers. One reason for Descalso’s disappointing results could be that pitchers have adjusted to him. As we see below, he has seen fewer fastballs and more breaking balls and offspeed pitches.
Pitchers have thrown Descalso 12.2% fewer fastballs, pitches he feasted on last season to the tune of a .414 wOBA. Though that number is not as high this season, he has still been performing well against heat. His results against breaking balls and especially offspeed pitches, on the other hand, have plummeted as pitchers have thrown more and more of them.
Descalso has hit just .062 and .034 against breaking and offspeed pitches, respectively, frequently chopping grounders and pulling the ball a lot less. It appears opposing pitchers are taking particular advantage down and away in the zone, a tactic to which the second baseman has failed to adjust.
With switch-hitting thumper Robel Garcia now in the picture as the utility guy on the roster and Ian Happ playing more second base in Triple-A, Descalso’s days in Chicago could be numbered unless he solves his problem with non-fastballs.