A designated hitter debate is not something a team necessarily wants, because it usually means the club has too many players that cannot play defense. For the Sox, that certainly applies, as Daniel Palka, Nicky Delmonico and Matt Davidson are, well, terrible in the field. Both the eye-test and analytics confirm that.
But out of the three potential candidates to be the DH, only one hits like a DH, and that is Daniel Palka.
Before we get to why Palka should be getting the majority of the DH at-bats, let’s take a deep dive on why Davidson and Delmonico should draw the short straw.
Matt Davidson, on the surface, and even in the advanced metrics, is having the best season among the three. He has a 112 wRC+, with a career-best walk percentage of 12.6%. He also has the best WAR of the three players.
Davidson is also hitting at a career-best clip against the fastball, sinker, changeup and curveball, as he has become more disciplined at the plate. His O-swing percentage is down almost 7% from last year, which is why he is walking more often.
However, Davidson is not really reinventing himself; he is, well, rediscovering his old form from when he was a top prospect. In the small sample size when Davidson was called up with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013, much of his peripherals are similar. In 2013, Davidson walked only 1.1% less and actually struck out almost 7% less than in 2018. Davidson does have more hard-hit contact this year, but in 2013 he had more medium and less soft contact than he does now. Even his O-swing percentage was only .6% higher in 2013 compared to 2018. It seems that Davidson has regained his patience at the plate.
So yes, Davidson is showing more power and better patience, especially against lefties, but even that is misleading. We all know Davidson is the Kansas City Killer this year, but even more so against K.C. lefties. He has a 1.594 OPS against Royals lefties, but if you isolate that performance and take it out of his yearly total, Davidson only has a .619 OPS against all other lefthanders this year. That’s not exactly a new or improved player.
Delmonico and Palka’s entire careers are small samples, and there are clearly easily fixable things available for both guys. However, in Delmonico’s case, he has regressed in his small, 2018 sample. Delmonico is walking less and striking out more this season. His isolated power has fallen from .220 to .141, even with an increase in hard hit percentage, exit velocity and launch angle. Maybe Delmonico is getting unlucky this year, but a decrease from 132 wRC+ to 98 is not something to ignore, especially when he has essentially the same BABIP.
What White Sox fans are finding out this year is that Delmonico is not the power hitter he seemed to be last season. In fact, every single peripheral is indicating that Delmonico should be showing more power this year than last. In 2017, Delmonico’s expected slugging was .390 — so far this year, it is .407. That is because his 22.5% HR/FB rate last season was an anomaly and not representative of what type of hitter Delmonico is. Now, his 6% HR/FB so far this year is not representative, either, but it is a closer reflection of his career in the minors. The plate discipline is optimal for Delmonico, but his power and hit tools are just not something to be excited about, and are the exact opposite of Palka.
And that’s why Palka needs more at-bats.
Since Palka’s promotion to the majors, he has been mashing. He has 31 extra-base hits in just 80 games, and 17 of those are home runs. He has the 20th-best ISO in all of baseball (minimum 200 plate appearances), at .261. He is sixth in all of baseball in barrels per plate appearance, at 9.9% He is 13th in average exit velocity (92.3 mph, actually tied with Avisaíl García), including the fourth-hardest hit ball in baseball this year, at 118.4 MPH. That helps Palka have the ninth-best hard-hit percentage in baseball (49.7%), according to Baseball Savant. The most staggering number is that Palka’s average home run distance is 415 feet, which is 10th in baseball. And with the exception of Mitch Moreland, the people in front of him are either not true home-run hitters, or play in Colorado.
Palka has power, we all know that. But it is a best-in-the-league type of power, and he’s getting that in spite of having terrible plate coverage.
The above heat map indicates where Palka is getting pitches. It is strange that it is mostly in the middle of the plate, but expect more red to be on the inside of the plate in short order. Now, Palka is not really seeing many pitches outside of the zone, which is strange considering how high his K-rate is.
With a K-rate at 33.9% (10th-worst in baseball, and right behind Yoán Moncada and Davidson), you would assume Palka swings an inordinate amount of times. However, he is 56th in baseball in swings outside the zone and 106th in swings inside the zone. Where Palka is terrible is that his swinging strike percentage is 17.1%. So many of the red and white squares above are just a case of Palka just, kinda, missing.
Yeah, there’s way too much blue here, even inside the strike zone. The entire inside of the plate has not seen any meaningful contact from Palka. Oddly enough, Palka is better with pitches up and away instead of inside, which is why he should start to get hammered with pitches inside more often. Palka’s plate coverage is terrible, but this is his first year in the majors, and it is not like he is chasing pitches outside the zone an exorbitant amount; he’s just missing pitches inside and outside the zone. That’s fixable.
Being able to read pitches is a problem for any first-year player, and Palka is no different, except for the fact that he is relatively patient at the plate. Now, a 5.8% walk rate is a lower number than Palka’s ever had in his career, and if given the chance, it should rise next year. His K-rate may not fall, but there has only been one other instance in Palka’s professional career when he had a higher K-rate than his current 33.9%.
What Palka needs to do is bring back some of his plate coverage from the minor leagues. With the White Sox, he has a 19.8% opposite field percentage on batted balls, which is far and away a career low. In 84 games in Triple-A with the Minnesota Twins last year, that oppo percentage was much higher, at 37.4%. In 2017 in the minors, he did have a career low in HR/FB rate, but there needs to be a healthy compromise between opposite field hitting and HR/FB rate for Palka to be successful. He can achieve it, because he already has in his career.
Daniel Palka already has unmatched power, but with more experience against major league pitching, he can be dangerous. The White Sox need to give him every opportunity to get that for the rest of 2018 — even if it means putting him in left field.