MLB's David vs. Goliath: Will Daniel Descalso outhit Giancarlo Stanton this year?

Giancarlo Stanton ranks among the game's brightest stars. Daniel Descalso is a journeyman. But the Yankee is one of the worst clutch hitters in baseball history -- and the Cub is one of the best. ESPN Illustration

Here's a hot-take kind of question: Who was the better hitter in 2018, Giancarlo Stanton or Daniel Descalso?

Stanton, the highest-profile acquisition of the previous offseason, was very good for the Yankees: 38 homers, .852 OPS and a 127 wRC+, meaning he was 27 percent better than the league's average hitter. He was on a couple of MVP ballots. Descalso, paid $2 million after the Diamondbacks picked up his option in November, was pretty good, too: 13 homers and a .789 OPS, with a 111 wRC+.

So that was easy. Stanton hit better, assuming the point of hitting is to get on base and hit the ball far.

But, of course, it's not. The point is to score runs, and for scoring runs, some hits are worth more than others. Descalso hit .270/.372/.541 with men on base, while Stanton hit only .236/.315/.429. Descalso drove in 17 percent of the men who were on base when he came up, while Stanton drove in only 14 percent. Of course, Stanton drove himself in 38 times, 25 more times than Descalso did -- but now the question is close. By RE24, a stat that also credits a batter with the runners he advances with his hits, it's a virtual tie. That's assuming, at least, that the point of hitting is, rather than "get hits," to create runs.

But it's not. The point is to win games, and for winning games, some runs are more important than others. We call the hits that drive in those runs "clutch." In 2018, Daniel Descalso was the fourth-clutchest hitter in the majors, according to FanGraphs' metric. And Giancarlo Stanton was, using that same measure and that same term, the fifth least-clutch. In high-leverage situations -- those situations where the game is most likely to be materially affected -- Descalso was far more effective, with a .591 slugging percentage to Stanton's .462, and a .378 OBP to Stanton's .313. By win probability added -- which measures the hitting team's chances of winning before a player bats and after he bats, crediting the change to the batter -- Descalso was one of the league's most productive hitters last year:

  • Descalso: 3.10 wins added, 23rd in the majors

  • Stanton: 0.95 wins added, 106th in the majors

So that turns out to be not that easy of a question: Descalso, Daniel Descalso, was apparently quite a bit better than Stanton, and also better than Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado. It's a hot take, but you can actually stand behind it. But now here's the really hot-take question: Who will be the better hitter in 2019, Giancarlo Stanton or Daniel Descalso?

"Clutch" is approaching its centennial. The first published use of the term, according to baseball historian Paul Dickson, was in 1925, when the Sporting News wrote of some old-timey player who "twice thereafter he delivered in the clutch." Four years later, according to the Dickson Baseball Dictionary, The New York Times explained the term to its readers: "When a batter produces a safe 'blow' at an opportune moment, his fellow-players say that he has hit 'in the clutch.'" (The term "blow" is also, apparently, approaching its centennial.)

It's safe to say ballplayers were circulating the term "clutch" before the Sporting News discovered it, and it's safer still to say the concept of a competitor who rises to the situation existed far earlier. ("Seeing his men untouched by the suitors' flurry, steady Odysseus leapt to take command.") But baseball's relationship with "clutch" splits into three phases over the past century:

Phase 1: General, uncontroversial acceptance. Even when the term was still brand new, writers were citing clutch ability (e.g., "Lazzeri has rapped most of his four-baggers when they meant the ballgame") in MVP debates. Branch Rickey, the analytical outlier among baseball executives in the middle of the 20th century, included a clutch score in his equation for team offense.

Phase 2: Sabermetric skepticism. Clutchness proved to be a very difficult thing to maintain over a career. In 1977, Richard Cramer's article in SABR's Baseball Research Journal challenged the legitimacy of clutch narratives, suggesting that what we identify after the fact as a "clutch" performance is merely random fluctuation, and whom we identify as a clutch hitter is nonpredictive. Over the next couple of decades, myriad analysts would attempt to find a persistent "clutch" skill and come up short, and by 2004 Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci wrote that clutch was a kind of "science vs. religion" issue in the sport:

Is clutch hitting myth or magic? It's like asking what's in the water at Lourdes: It depends on who's answering. A Carmelite nun, for instance, might find lacking the chemist's determination that the water is nothing but two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen; the chemist might scoff at the sister's belief in its healing properties.

Phase 3: Mysterious, confounded appreciation. Shortly after Verducci's article ran, Bill James wrote an influential essay -- also in SABR's Baseball Research Journal -- arguing that there was far too much "fog" in baseball statistics to prove or disprove whether clutch hitting is a fleeting (fake) or persistent (real) skill.

Measuring "clutch" performance, James explained, involves comparing two volatile measures (performance in the clutch and performance not in the clutch, both over inconclusive samples), and measuring the stability of clutch ability involves four volatility measures -- each of those two, across at least two years. All that volatility adds up to impenetrable uncertainty. That didn't mean clutch hitting wasn't real, but that none of the refutations of its existence were any good, either. As analysts were absorbed into front offices and as sabermetrics began to take nonmeasurable soft factors more seriously, clutch regained some of its esteem -- its mysterious, confounding esteem. Researchers have continually studied it anew, sometimes finding support for its predictive value, sometimes not.

In 2006, The Book, a seminal collection of sabermetric research, found clutch ability to be persistent, though the sample sizes required to prove an individual hitter has got it (many thousands of plate appearances) were generally too prohibitive to be useful. That same year, Nate Silver laid out the case that "clutch" hitting is real and persistent, but less impactful than we tend to treat it. "It's probably folly for a club to go looking for clutch hitters -- the ability just isn't important enough in the bigger scheme of things."

Which brings us back to Stanton and Descalso, whose 2018s were both anomalous and exactly what we've come to expect from them.

Descalso and Stanton were each drafted in 2007, one round apart, and each made his debut in 2010. Their careers have gone in remarkably different directions, with Stanton developing into a singular superstar and Descalso building a career as a traveling veteran with a lot of gloves and good control on the mound. Each has had a successful career, but, you know, obviously, one is Stanton and the other is Descalso. Stanton hit more homers in 2017 than Descalso has hit in his career. Stanton's offense has been worth almost 300 more runs than Descalso's, according to context-independent stats.

But there's one leaderboard where the roles are switched:

Clutch score, 2010-2018:
1. Daniel Descalso (7.31 extra wins)
299. Giancarlo Stanton (-9.26 extra wins)

There are 299 qualifying hitters, so Descalso is first and Stanton is last. In history, out of 1,268 hitters, Descalso is ninth, while Stanton is ninth from the bottom. 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.

We use the word clutch -- and have, since 1925! -- but a better word for what we've identified might be "situational." As Silver wrote in 2006, "Some of these situations are obvious -- two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning with the go-ahead run at home plate is a clutch situation. Others are subtler -- what we might call 'hidden-clutch' situations. Leading off the inning is a hidden-clutch situation, since making the first out of the inning is more than twice as costly as making the last out of the inning."

When one makes the intuitive argument for "clutch" being real -- that these players are humans and it makes sense some people will behave differently in the tensest, most stressful situations -- he's usually thinking about palm-sweat situations, not "first and third in the second inning." But the former are very rare. It's the latter that provide the statistical heft to clutch scores.

And if we're measuring a player's offensive production in the context of its true value to his team's chances of winning, then those hidden situations are crucial. The skill that would make a player clutch probably isn't mental fortitude, but the ability to adapt, even slightly, to the needs of the situation.

So, look at what happens when men are on base for each of these hitters. With runners on base, pitchers tend to throw fewer strikes. (This is true against a slugger like Stanton, but also against a normal hitter like Descalso.) Descalso, who is already more patient than Stanton and makes more contact than Stanton, adapts to this situation and becomes an even more disciplined hitter. He chases fewer pitches out of the strike zone (23 percent, compared to 25 percent overall), whiffs a bit less often (22 percent, from 24) and fouls off a higher percentage of two-strike pitches. He draws more walks. He also gets more favorable hitting counts. He hits for higher average, more power and, in the years Statcast covers, has hit for a higher exit velocity and launch angle with men on base. The traditional incentives for a guy like Descalso -- to work the count, put the ball in play or draw a walk to move the line along -- are helped along by pitchers' extra caution, and Descalso himself adjusts that little bit extra. (He also, by the way, shows up in this recent article about hitters who've had the most success against tough pitchers -- who have some extra overlap with high-leverage situations.)

Stanton, meanwhile, walks to the plate in the role of run producer. His job is to get those steaks in. But the perceived job of the run producer (steaks) are here in opposition to the pitchers' extra caution. Stanton sees fewer pitches in the strike zone but chases more out of the strike zone, and swings and misses more often. He strikes out 10 percent more often when runners are on base, walks 5 percent less frequently (when intentional walks are removed), hits fewer home runs and has a lower batting average on balls in play.

Stanton, it should be noted, is not the only slugger near the bottom of the clutch leaderboard, and one might deduce from the names around him (including Sammy Sosa, Mike Schmidt, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds) that there's a clutch penalty for players who are identified as "run producers." There are power hitters who rate out as clutch, and there are tons of non-power hitters who rate out as non-clutch. But if we just look at the 30 most clutch hitters in baseball this century, and the 30 least clutch, there are clear differences in how they hit overall:

Maybe the crucial difference is ability to make contact. Maybe it's the ability to hit for a high batting average on contact. But the biggest difference is power. Clutch batters tend to have little power. Non-clutch batters tend to have a lot of it.

Meanwhile, if we limit our gaze to Stanton's and Descalso's 100 highest-leverage plate appearances -- unambiguously tense, not hidden at all, in which player behavior might be most likely to be affected -- the performance has been truly lopsided. Descalso has hit .365/.473/.581, good for 3.1 win probability added. Stanton has hit .217/.340/.361, for negative 2.1 WPA. In just 200 plate appearances, Descalso -- Daniel Descalso! -- has been five wins better than Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton, one of the most feared hitters of the era, has ended up with a higher strike percentage. Small sample size. But wild.

One thing nearly every study that finds "clutch" ability will tell you is that it rarely matters enough to guide a personnel decision. As "The Book" co-author Tom Tango wrote in 2009, after demonstrating the realness of clutch-hitting ability, "No one is going to select Marco Scutaro over Alex Rodriguez. The two players must be pretty close to begin with in talent, before you go off having a preference for your clutch hitter over someone who is otherwise a better hitter." Given how little faith we can have in a demonstrated "clutch" ability persisting, you'd still rather have the 30 "non-clutch" hitters in the table up there than the 30 clutch.

And the existence of this hot-take question -- Stanton or Descalso in 2019? -- would have been especially outlandish before last year. That's not because Stanton didn't already rank low on the clutch leaderboards, nor because Descalso didn't already rank high on the same, but because Stanton was so much better than Descalso, clutch didn't matter. Stanton, leverage-splits and all, ranks eighth among all players in win probability added since 2010, when he made his debut. Descalso ranks 109th. The difference is 18 wins. This is what Silver meant when he called it "folly" to go looking for clutch hitters.

But what happened is Descalso, maybe or maybe not a big-hit specialist, finally became an above-average all-the-time hitter last year. And Stanton, whose skill set maybe is or maybe isn't poorly suited for certain high-leverage situations, had the second-worst full season of his career. That's why Descalso got within range of Stanton at all.

So who'll be the better hitter in 2019? If the point of hitting is to get on base and hit the ball far, Stanton's the overwhelming favorite. PECOTA, the projection system at Baseball Prospectus, expects Stanton (.262/.356/.531) to be worth 30 runs more than Descalso (.252/.347/.417). Descalso -- signed for two years and $5 million by the Cubs -- would have to match his best clutch season (last year), and Stanton would have to match his worst (also last year) to close a 30-run gap in offensive value.

Even 100 years into this discussion, there's still a lot of mystery about what clutch is, what it means and whether Daniel Descalso's got it. We've come a long way, and we needn't rule out Descalso's gift just because it's hard to prove. James was right: We should all be cautious about what we think we see through the fog.

But it's obviously Stanton! Stanton's going to be the better hitter. Come on!

One of the great things about baseball, though, is Descalso could still prove me wrong, and for either one of two great reasons: Maybe he actually has an honest-to-goodness superpower, and if that's the case, we will spend his entire career not fully believing it. Or maybe he's gotten unaccountably lucky, for an entire career, and at the end of it, every single one of those runs will still count.