Daniel Descalso: No Paper Trail

When Lance Lynn was called up, I spent some time going back through the Future Redbirds archives trying to find the back story on him. I'd seen Lynn in the minors several times, charted pitches for two other starts from video during his time in Memphis and there was a lot of general prospect ink spilled about him at places like Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus.  As Daniel Descalso's role on the St. Louis Cardinals grows, I wanted to view him with the same historical lens. One problem: No one wrote about Daniel Descalso.

Drafted in the infamous 2007 draft during the third round, Daniel Descalso was plucked from relative obscurity out of University of California's Davis campus.  Descalso had posted a big year for Davis when he hit .397/.474/.569 at age 20. At the time of the draft though, Baseball America was nearly mute on him:

Descalso controls the strike zone, takes a healthy hack from the left side and has a knack for getting the fat part of the bat on the ball. His thick body turns some scouts off, though he has some athleticism. He's a third baseman primarily but has played some second, and his bat would play better there. He's an average runner and could go in the first 10 rounds.

It's a somewhat underwhelming comment and it's about the only thing you'll find written about Descalso for the next two years.  He didn't rank at either BA or BP for top 10 prospect lists in 2008. Descalso would spend some time in Batavia following his signing in 2007. It was a adequate, average offensive performance. In 2008, he'd bypass Quad Cities and go straight to Palm Beach. At both Palm Beach and his few plate appearances in Springfield, Descalso displayed a similar offensive output. Nothing world beating but not terrible.  Erik Manning had the opportunity to interview him in late 2008:

How would you describe a quality at-bat?

I think a quality at bat is anytime you can put the ball in play hard. It is not easy to find holes so all you can do is hit it hard. Walks and other productive outs are quality at-bats too.

But 2009 was the coming out party for Descalso aided by the friendly confines of Hammons Field in Springfield. That year he hit an eye popping .323/.396/.531 featuring impressive power. Springfield's ballpark is a noted power booster among the Cardinals minor league affiliates but Descalso's performance was still well ahead of the league averages for his level.

Indeed, the performance was finally enough to get him some offseason recognition. He made Baseball America's 2009 top 20 list for the Texas League (AA) along with Brett Wallace (#5) and Lance Lynn (#12). The 13th best player in that league Will Lingo wrote:

Descalso is a throwback, blue-collar player with a strong understanding of his swing and what kind of player he is. He knows how to handle the bat, with a short swing and gap to gap power, with the ability to occasionally hit the ball over the fence. He's not a good runner and doesn't have great actions at second base but makes all the plays.

Managers love Descalso because he's a scrapper who will run through walls for his team. He seems perfectly suited to be an offensive second baseman in St. Louis.

If ever there was a scouting report to appeal to the nature and makeup of the Cardinals major league squad, that has to be it.  Descalso when discussed was commented on as a bat and an adequate defender still transitioning to second base. (He played third in college.)  Descalso also managed to sneak onto the 2010 top prospect lists from BP and BA following his Springfield campaign. He ranked 9th for both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus where Kevin Goldstein wrote:

The Good: Descalso is an aggressive hitter with a quick bat and an innate feel for contact. He makes excellent in-swing adjustments, uses all fields, and shows few weaknesses by pitch hand or type. He's a grinder who gets the most out of his tools, and his defensive fundamentals are outstanding.
The Bad: Descalso is a line-drive hitter with little power, and Triple-A pitchers retired him consistently by simply challenging him in the strike zone. He doesn't offer much in the way of tools beyond his bat, as he's an average runner at best.

Was the conventional wisdom on Descalso wrong? There seemed to be a wide consensus that he was a nice complementary player and maybe even a starter on a second tier team. He'd be confined to second base, maybe third and would be adequate there.

Memphis in 2010 wasn't particularly kind to Descalso as much of the Springfield power evaporated. His ISO dropped from .208 in Springfield to .139 in a full season at Memphis. Descalso continued to hit for average and draw a moderate number of walks but there was no standout secondary skill to be seen. He was a jack of all trades and a master of none. 2010 ended with Descalso in the majors seeing time at third base to cover up for the terrible replacements after another David Freese injury. (Fun Fact: This is Freese's third year in the majors and he still has appeared in less than 162 games.)  Descalso would not be found on top ten lists during the offseason.

So Descalso's inclusion on the 2011 squad as a hard working, utility player was reasonable. His work ethic and demeanor meshed well with the style of the club and it's coaches. Only recently has Descalso been forced into yet another unfamiliar role: starting shortstop. The absolute inadequacy that Ryan Theriot has displayed in recent weeks has forced the hand of the coaching staff to look at alternatives. Descalso has seen a few starts there and the results have been unexpectedly good.

That description, "unexpectedly good", seems an apt phrase for much of Descalso's major league appearances. He's hitting well at the plate (.320/.367/.448) though it's mostly spurred by good luck on batted balls. Descalso is lacing line drives around the field this year (27%).  [Update: As was pointed out, I had multiple fangraphs pages open when writing this and accidentally referenced Freese's stats.  Descalso is currently hitting .255/.335/.352 with a 10% walk rate though he's been intentionally walked a considerable amount.  With a 18% line drive rate his .310 BABIP is in the right neighborhood if a tick low.  Given the depressed offensive environment of the league and Busch Stadium, I would still describe Descalso's hitting as better I expected but not a world beater.  Sorry for the mixup.]  (I could write a whole article on the difference between a lucky BABIP and an unsustainable one.  The short version is that lucky BABIPs are unsustainable but unsustainable ones are not necessarily lucky.  Descalso is unlikely to continue to hit line drives with that frequency but that batted ball aids his BABIP in predictable ways.) Descalso's secondary skills haven't evidenced themselves much yet as he's not walking often or hitting for more than moderate power.

Back to the unfamiliar role though. Descalso's defense has, by and large, been above board and he's displayed unexpected range evidenced in some highlight reel plays.  With the plethora of players at third base (David Freese, Matt Carpenter, Zach Cox) the real need for the Cardinals, both now and in the future, is up the middle at both shortstop and second base.  It's possible with both Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker facing arbitration again after the season that Descalso could take on an expanded role. Whether the Cardinals are willing to commit to a rather untested player at such a vital defensive position as shortstop seems unlikely but it's hard to know.

Throughout his time in the minors, Daniel Descalso kept his head down, played hard-nosed baseball and was promoted quickly from his 2007 post-draft start of Batavia. Four years later, the Cardinals are reaping the benefits of what was an unheralded prospect. Whether he turns out to be an under-rated one, will take a few more seasons to know. For now, fans can simply sit back and watch as he matures and adapts to the new environment of the major leagues and the unexpected tasks that may be asked of him.

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