A tribute to Daniel Descalso (and his undue defensive reputation)

Justin K. Aller

The St. Louis Cardinals have now gotten one-and-a-half good seasons and one bad season out of Daniel Descalso.

Because it's been a couple of months, at least, since I jinxed anyone—and I'll have you know Hiroyuki Nakajima hit a whopping .295/.357/.352 in July—I thought this afternoon might be a good time to talk about Daniel Descalso. Specifically, about how he's basically having the season all of us hoped he'd be capable of following his infamously inflated stint with AA Springfield.

1. That time Daniel Descalso was a prospect

I should back up. If you were not a member of the hyperventilating prospect geek fraternity back in 2009, it might surprise you to learn that for a few months, there, Daniel Descalso was a rapidly emerging Big Deal for prospect fans. I'm not sure who the best recent comparison would be—maybe Greg Garcia last year.

The year before, at 21, he'd had a completely forgettable season in Palm Beach—where lots of hitters, in his defense, have completely forgettable seasons. But out of the gate in AA he was hitting, not just for average but for 39 extra-base hits in 288 at-bats. By the time he ended up in AAA Memphis he was hitting .323/.396/.531 in a completely age-appropriate Texas League debut. (Pete Kozma, his year-younger double-play partner, hit .216/.288/.312; Brett Wallace, in 32 games at the level, hit .281/.403/.438.)

Promoted to AAA at the height of his powers, he hit just .253/.327/.320. But there's an error I think a lot of us are prone to committing when we look at minor league stats: The good ones, the ones we see first, are the real ones, and the promotion is a result of temporary adjustments or small sample sizes or whatever.

And in any case, when you put the numbers together they still looked really nice: .299/.373/.459.

2. The rest of the time

As much as that year stands out, I have to continually remind myself that Descalso was a perfectly useful hitter in 2011. .264/.334/.353 isn't what you hope for out of a guy who briefly looks like an offense-first middle infielder, but he soaked up a lot of the at-bats that were leaking out of a broken infield and kept himself well above replacement level.

He didn't do that in 2012, but if he keeps his numbers up this year it could be that the Daniel Descalso with his OPS+ around 90, and not 70, is the real one, despite our natural pessimism.

3. The thing that makes it hard to talk about Daniel Descalso

There was basically no reason at all to ever assume that Daniel Descalso was a good second baseman, let alone any kind of shortstop. When he was drafted he was "a third baseman primarily" with a "thick body" who was better known for his offense than his defense. He was not moved to second because his glove was so good—he was moved there because his bat was maybe not good enough.

But because David Freese's injuries earned him an early audition at third, his natural position, and because he made some nice diving stops and displayed the kind of solid, soft-handed style you get from someone who is described in scouting reports as both "thick-bodied" and "a scrapper who will run through walls," he quickly earned a defensive reputation that everybody involved—broadcasters, managers, fans—has spent the next two years trying to walk back as gingerly as possible.

If Daniel Descalso were a really good second baseman, he would be the starting shortstop right now. If he were a pretty good second baseman—well, he might still be the starting shortstop right now. It hasn't been a good year for shortstops. But Daniel Descalso is not a pretty good second baseman, if his defensive metrics and simple observation are any indication. He's a guy who can play second base, if he's hitting.

UZR has him just a little below average over a little less than a full season there, slightly worse than third base and much better than shortstop. DRS is basically identical in terms of the shape of his skills, but a little more pessimistic overall. The sample sizes are too small to make definitive judgments with, but they track both with the idea of a fundamentally sound, insufficiently quick third-baseman-turned-utility-man and the experience of watching Daniel Descalso when you're not waiting for him to dive for the ball or make a precise double-play turn.

Once Mike Matheny realized he really should not be playing shortstop very often, and was at a loss to explain that as it related to the idea that he was a defensive asset, things got really awkward. But when Descalso's hitting, he's a valuable bench player in spite of his defense—basically, he's the guy we hoped he would be.

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