Wednesday, January 06, 2010
Player Profile: Chris DavisPosted by Mike Silver at 4:55am
Chris Davis seemed to be on the up and up. With a blazing rookie season that included 17 home runs in 80 games, Davis was expected to lead his owners to fantasy glory. Instead, his game collapsed, as soaring strikeout rates brought down his overall line. Finally spared the embarrassment, Davis was sent down to Triple-A to work on his swing. After being called up in late August, Davis recovered somewhat but still struggled to find his form.
Still, while Davis' slump seemed to come out of nowhere, it was something that all of us could have seen coming. In reality, he's been this kind of player throughout his professional career—a powerful hacker who struggles with strikeouts, showing little to no plate discipline.
Drafted in the fifth round in 2006 by the Texas Rangers, Davis began his career for Spokane at Low-A later that season. The hulking 20-year-old had a good showing there, blasting 15 home runs in 253 at-bats, on his way to a .277/.343/.534 line. His plate discipline was less than optimal, with just 23 walks against 65 strikeouts (25.69 K percentage). Still, his power and projectability meant plenty of room for optimism, as Davis was promoted up the ladder for 2007.
The 2007 season was a big one for Davis. Starting out at High-A Bakersfield, he registered 386 at-bats, slugging 24 home runs. However, he struggled mightily at controlling the strike zone, walking just 22 times to go along with 123 punchouts (31.86 K percentage). Despite his struggles with plate discipline, Texas promoted Davis to Double-A Frisco to finish the season. Here, he displayed exactly the type of raw power that scouts were so excited about, mashing 12 long balls in just 109 at-bats. His poor plate discipline improved somewhat, as Davis worked 13 walks against 27 strikeouts (24.77 K percentage). With the type of raw power and tools displayed by Davis, he shot up the prospect hierarchy, registering second in the Texas organization and 65th in MLB. The sky officially the limit, Davis looked toward 2008 with an eye on improving his plate discipline while maintaining his power stroke.
Davis started the 2008 season at Frisco in a repeat of Double-A. He looked like much the same player as he had been since 2006: tons of power with a poor approach. Logging 186 at-bats, he mashed 13 home runs with just 13 walks and 44 strikeouts (23.65 K percentage) before his promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma. There, he continued his power-hitting ways, with 10 bombs in 111 at-bats, with lots of strikeouts (26.13 K percentage) and few walks. Still, Texas needed help at the dish and the organization promoted Davis, hoping he was ready for Prime Time.
The results were mixed. His overall line was much more than could be expected from a rookie (.285/.331/.549) and his power was superb (17 home runs in 295 at-bats). However, he was very much the same batter he had been in the minors, walking just 20 times but logging a whopping 88 strikeouts (29.8 K percentage). In addition, his triple slash line was aided significantly by a huge .353 BABIP that seemed destined to come back to earth. In 2009, his season came crashing down.
Last year was an unmitigated disaster for Davis. Things started off very poorly and never really got on track. A poor .200/.273/.429 April was followed up by an even worse .189/.238/.442 June. His .202/.256/.415 line before the break caused him to be sent down to Triple-A on July 6. After the dust settled on the year, Davis finished with a .238/.284/.442 line including 21 home runs in 391 at-bats. Not what owners expected.
While there were reasons to be down on his production, there are some reasons to be optimistic. First, it is encouraging that his problems this past season can be very easily isolated—at least statistically—meaning that, if next year is a rebound year, it should be easy to recognize.
There were really two problems that hurt Davis’ production in 2009 as compared to 2008. The first was his relative drop in BABIP, which declined from .353 to .327. Though still high, it isn’t unreasonably so for a player who posted a .361 BABIP in his minor league career consisting of 1,210 at-bats. Still, a drop in BABIP of 25 points would have lowered his 2008 batting average to .268.
Likewise, an increase in BABIP to .353 in 2009 would have brought his lowly .238 batting average to a poor—but at least tolerable—.252. That’s Step One.
Step Two, and the far more troublesome development, is the precipitous decline in his contact rate on pitches inside the strike zone. Other than his BABIP, this was nearly the only facet of Davis’ game that did not improve from 2008. Every other measure of his game took a step forward last season—even if that is not saying much for a player with such poor plate discipline.
Still, Davis was able to improve his selectivity at the plate, improving his O-Swing percentage by 3.2 percent (37.3 percent O-Swing in 2008 versus 34.1 percent in 2009) and increasing his Z-Swing percentage by another 3 percent (72.5 percent in ’08 to 75.5 percent in ’09). This corresponded with a drop in his overall swing percentage by about a full percentage point (54.3 percent in ’08 versus 53.4 percent in ’09). In addition, though his contact percentage dropped by almost five whole points (68.1 percent contact rate in 2008 versus 63.2 percent in 2009), his O-Contact rate was virtually stable, increasing by just 0.1 percent.
Meaning that his drop in contact rate was caused, primarily, by two factors. The lesser of the two factors was the drop in his Zone percentage by 1.6 percent (48.2 percent in ’08 versus 46.6 percent in ’09). This, when taking into account his free-swinging ways, was actually a negative development, as most batters who see fewer pitches in the zone can turn this into more walks. Davis, unfortunately, could not. The second factor—and the one that is far more troubling—was his enormous drop in his zone contact rate of more than 8 percentage points (79.1 percent in ’08 versus 70.8 percent in ’09). This absolutely obliterated his contact percentage, with some gruesome results, which were seen in his 38.4 strikeout percentage—second in the league only to the incomparable Mark Reynolds. Ouch.
But that does not close the book on Davis. The fact that he was still able to put up the power numbers that he did is quite impressive—given his prodigious strikeout rates. Many players, when struggling with such strikeout totals, significantly alter their plate approach and lose much of their power. That Davis did not is encouraging for his power output.
The key for Davis in 2010 will be to recapture at least some of his ability to make contact with pitches inside the zone. He has one of the worst combinations of poor plate discipline and poor contact skills in the league. Until he rectifies these problems, he will struggle to put up any sort of tolerable batting average. For next season, watch his Z-Contact rate and his O-Swing Percentage. If he is able to raise his Z-Contact rate to his ’08 levels and continue to drop his O-Swing Percentage, he could be able to again crack the 30 percent strikeout barrier. This would be a great benefit to his batting average and could bring it back up to the .260s—given that the power is still there, which it should be.
For the 2010 season, don’t expect too much from Davis. A 30-35 home run season with a batting average in the .255-.265 range seems likely, though his OPS may not reach far above .800 due to his lack of walks. In the end, it all rests on that contact rate. If it can get up near the 70 percent range, then he is a good player to target in a midseason trade. If it can somehow get higher than that number, it could be a very good year. Still, temper your enthusiasm, as Davis proved last season that he has serious difficulties hitting major league pitching. He’s worth drafting as an upside play, but don’t be shocked if he annihilates your batting average as he did in 2009. Feel free to draft him, but do it late and with caution—he's a well below-average option at first base. And please, don't pin your home run hopes to his lumber. He'll hurt you in nearly every other category.
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Returning from a brief hiatus, Mike is excited to be back at THT.
Mike's former writing homes include FireBrandAL.com and StatSpeak.net, while his content has appeared on Fangraphs.com, ESPN.com, and others. A lifelong Red Sox fan native to New York, Mike loves to blend baseball and statistical analysis.
Feel free to email him at mjasilver AT gmail DOT com.