The Way Daniel Descalso is a "More Valuable Hitter" Than Giancarlo Stanton is Blowing My Mind

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The Way Daniel Descalso is a “More Valuable Hitter” Than Giancarlo Stanton is Blowing My Mind

Chicago Cubs

Sam Miller was trolling you when he opened up his latest article at ESPN with the question: “Who was the better hitter in 2018, Giancarlo Stanton or Daniel Descalso?” After all, Stanton slashed .266/.343/.509 (127 wRC+) with 38 bombs and 100 RBI last season, while Descalso slashed a respectable, but clearly inferior .238/.353/.436 (111 wRC+) with 13 homers and just over half as many runs driven in.

But Sam Miller is also not dumb.

The purpose of his question wasn’t to make you snicker or roll your eyes. In fact, his question wasn’t even particularly insulting to Stanton. It simply gathers our attention and directs it towards a much broader conversation about what it means to be a “clutch” hitter.

The analytical idea of coming through in the “clutch” – some guys just always seem to come through in the big spots – is around 100 years old, but it has also gone through several iterations over the years. As Miller explains, Phase 1 of baseball’s relationship with the concept of clutch was the “general, uncontroversial acceptance.” In other words, this is back when some guys were clutch, others were not. Period. End of story. Phase 2 didn’t start up until the sabermetricians started making noise about its non-predictive qualities. And Phase 3 (I’m short-handing all of this by the way, you should really check out Miller’s article for more) is basically the more recent understanding of clutch, which can be defined by Miller as a “mysterious, confounded appreciation.”

By today’s standards, we more or less know that coming through in the clutch matters – the point of playing is to win, and if you come through in the right spots more often than not, you’ll win more often than not – but no one is quite willing to go any further than that when it comes to clutch-ness being a predictable skill.

Indeed, Cubs fans should be extremely familiar with this fact. In 2015, Kris Bryant had the fifth highest “Clutch” score in all of baseball. That season, in all situations, he slashed .275/.369/.488 (136 wRC+) with a 30.6% strikeout rate. Just one season later, when he finished with a far more impressive .292/.385/.554 (148 wRC+) with a 22.0% strikeout rate, Bryant was the fourth LEAST “Clutch” hitter in baseball. And still, one season later, when Bryant slashed .295/.409/.537 with a 19.2% strikeout rate, he was the SECOND LEAST “Clutch” hitter in baseball.

Here’s his Win Probability Added during those three seasons:

2015: 5.99 (5th highest)
2016: 2.26 (33rd)
2017: 1.80(47th)

By the slash lines alone, you’d be a fool to take Bryant’s 2015 campaign over the two years that followed. And yet, in retrospect, we can see that Bryant actually helped the Cubs win more that first season, when you consider the actual timing and game-outcome for his production.

Perhaps we have much more to learn about clutch scores, win probability added, and their connection to overall performance, but it’s difficult to land anywhere concrete, since we don’t really have a grasp on the “skill” aspect of all of this.

It’s still more likely than not that in small samples – even 2-3 seasons worth of plate appearances – clutch is at least as much about luck as it is about skill. The bigger the sample gets, of course, the more useable information you *might* be able to glean (I still can’t be positive about that, as this is all academic).

Which returns us to Daniel Descalso and the Cubs.

(Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

Consider this: During high-leverage situations in 2018, new Cubs infielder Descalso got on base at a .378 clip and slugged .591 for the season. Stanton, meanwhile, got on base at just a .313 clip and slugged only .462. Relatedly, Descalso ranked 23rd with a 3.10 WPA (win probability added) last season while Stanton ranked 106th with 0.95. Taking it a step further, Descalso was the fourth MOST clutch hitter in MLB last season, while Stanton was the fifth LEAST clutch hitter.

And their career rates are even crazier (Clutch score 2010-2018)

1. Daniel Descalso: +7.31 extra wins
299. Giancarlo Stanton: -9.26 extra wins

There were only 299 qualified hitters during this period, so Descalso was literally the most clutch while Stanton was literally the least clutch. Indeed, Miller reports that Descalso is actually the ninth most clutch hitter in baseball history, which … yo.

As Miller puts it: “If clutch is real, and if this metric successfully measures past performance of it, and if each hitter continues with his current trajectory – all the big Ifs at the heart of this question – Descalso could soon be the most clutch hitter of all time, and Stanton could soon be … the opposite.”

But here’s the thing: no one in their right mind would take Descalso over Stanton. Not last year. Not going forward. Not for their careers. Never. And so, in enters the fog of clutch. By certain measures, as Miller points out, Descalso’s apparent abilities (or is it luck?) in high-leverage situations makes him at least as valuable of an overall offensive piece as Stanton … but we also KNOW that’s not true.

Right? Right? This just can’t be a thing. Right? The mind strains …

Let’s reset and keep things a little less dramatic. Ignore the Stanton component of the conversation for a minute and really take in what you just learned: the Cubs’ newest position player has been one of the most clutch hitters of all-time and is coming off his most clutch season yet. Maybe that doesn’t mean he has some magic ability to be BETTER in high-leverage spots than other spots, but maybe it does mean he never bothered by the big moment. Since you can almost think of situational hitting as part of the “high-leverage” or “clutch” buckets, that’s a pretty important revelation. The Cubs could use some assistance in those big “situational” spots.

I would never, ever push for getting someone like Descalso over a more established high-level hitter with higher upside or more value like recent free agents Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson, etc. Sure, I see the “clutch” numbers, but I just don’t think I can go that far. Still … maybe, just maybe, the drop off in actual wins produced from those types to Descalso for the Cubs won’t be as steep as the slash lines will look by the end of the year. Maybe Descalso really does have a “superpower”, as Miller puts it, and is just uniquely good at coming through for his team at just the right time. “We needn’t rule out Descalso’s gift just because it’s hard to prove.”

Wouldn’t that be something?

Read Miller’s piece to think more deeply on this topic and learn a whole lot. It might blow your mind just a bit.

Brett Taylor contributed to this post.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami