Daniel Descalso is a great example of why batting average is a flawed way of evaluating a hitter’s performance.
The 31-year-old Arizona Diamondbacks infielder and pinch-hitter extraordinaire was a key part of a team that played in the playoffs for the first time since 2011 last season. In 130 games, Descalso hit a pedestrian .233, but he contributed 10 home runs and 51 RBIs, hitting .279 as a pinch hitter and .284 in high-leverage situations.
One might think Descalso has had an unproductive start to the 2018 season. In 16 games, he is only hitting .175 with a .261 on-base percentage. Descalso only has one double to his name, to go along with two home runs and six RBIs.
But counting stats no longer tell the whole story. In the 1950s and ’60s, batting average, home runs, and RBIs were the primary offensive stats. They were on the back of every baseball card, used in newspaper articles, and cited most frequently on television and radio broadcasts.
But the sabermetric revolution and the introduction of pitch tracking technology, culminating in the birth of Statcast, has changed the way coaches, front offices, fans, journalists, broadcasters, scouts, and other talent evaluators judge players.
Are you feeling lucky?
Well, people realized that luck plays a huge role in determining whether a player gets a hit.
Weak contact is not the desirable outcome for hitter, but Dee Gordon of the Seattle Mariners is a master at turning softly hit balls into hits.
At the same time, a batter can hit a ball hard but right into a fielders glove, and they have nothing to show for it. It is hard to hit a ball better than this, but…
What both examples mean is that simply looking a players raw at-bat results does not cut it. Instead, looking at a players batting average with balls in play, or BABIP, is more thorough. This stat measures how many of a batter’s balls in play go for base hits. A lower BABIP can mean that a hitter is due for a breakout, while a high BABIP can mean a hitter is due to regress.
But there are other factors that have to be combined with BABIP to get the full picture.
Descalso is hitting the ball hard
Entering play Wednesday, Descalso has a hard contact rate of 55 percent, which ranks third in the majors among players with at least 40 plate appearances.
But even though he is putting the ball to the barrel more often than not, Descalso is somehow hitting under .200.
At the same time, Descalso’s soft contact percentage is currently the lowest of his career and he has never hit the ball hard this frequently in previous seasons.
Descalso’s line drive percentage is up from 18 percent last season to 23 percent this season. At the same time, his ground ball percentage is down from 39 percent to 32 percent, and his fly ball rate is up slightly from 43 to 45 percent.
Descalso recently drove in four runs from the cleanup spot in a win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on the last road trip. The baseball gods apparently felt bad for all the screaming liners he has hit, but Descalso has yet to turn that game into a streak that raises his batting average.
Needing the perfect combination
Sometimes, a player’s launch angle and exit velocity can combine to produce an out even on a hard-hit ball. However, Descalso’s average exit velocity is up from 87.1 mph to 90.2 this year, and his average launch angle is way up from 12.7 degrees in 2017 to 20.2 degrees in 2018. The latter is not quite hitting the sweet spot of between 25 to 30 degrees, but it should still have resulted in more hits and a higher average thaen it has to this point.
With all of this data in mind, it appears Descalso has been a victim of bad luck. He is bound to go on a hot streak, allowing his counting stats to catch up to more accurate measures of performance.
*Stats from Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and Statcast, unless otherwise noted.