How Good is Chris Davis?

*Looking for any feedback you guys can give me on this piece, as so I can enhance my writing/analysis skills. Thanks!

Amongst the biggest surprises from the first month of the 2013 season was Chris Davis’s absolute domination over opposing pitchers. Through May 1st, Davis is hitting .348/.442/.728 with a league leading 9 home runs and a 1.7 WAR. Obviously, Davis has been phenomenal, and there is no telling when he will slow down, but is this the real Chris Davis or is his performance a byproduct of a small sample size? And if the latter, exactly how good of a player is he?

To answer, the 2nd question, we’ll start by taking a look at how Davis was viewed as a prospect. Coming up through the Texas Rangers’ system, Davis was largely viewed as a potential middle of the order corner infielder. The power had always been there, and it was difficult for scouts not to be impressed by it. The defense (and strikeouts) was his main concern, as Davis was bound to end up at first base, despite a plus arm. Texas would try him at third and later in right field, but it proved to be too rigorous for the behemoth sized masher. Following 2007, a year in which he hit 36 home runs combined at High-A Bakersfield and Double-A Frisco, Baseball America rated Davis as the 2nd best prospect in the Rangers system (behind Elvis Andrus) and had this to say concerning his strengths and weaknesses:

Strengths: Not only does Davis have well-above-average power, but he knows how to use it, thanks to a balanced approach and willingness to use the whole field. He has improved against lefthanders, shortened up his swing somewhat and showed an ability to make adjustments against more advanced pitching as he has moved through the minors.

Weaknesses: Despite a plus arm, Davis is a below-average defender at third base, with poor footwork and actions. He played right field in his pro debut but is a below-average runner who likely will be limited to first base down the road. Though he has a good feel for hitting, he swings and misses a lot. He tends to start his hands high then drop them down before the pitch, making him vulnerable against pitches above the belt.

As evidenced by the above quote, Davis was viewed as a player who someday could potentially slug 30+ home runs, but with a tendency to strike out quite a bit.

So far, that has all held true in the majors. Since reaching the big leagues with the Rangers in 2008, Davis has slugged .481 and averaged 31 home runs per 162 games. However, he has also struck out a whopping 30.5% of the time, while walking in just 7% of his plate appearances. For a player who strikes out as much as Davis does, he needs to be able supplement some of those K’s with walks.

Take Adam Dunn as an example. Dunn, like Davis, strikes out in nearly 30% of his at bats (28.2%), but he also walks at a rate of 16.1%, over 9% greater than Davis. The walks mitigate some of the strikeouts, making him at least an above average regular. And that was Davis’s problem for the first 5 years of his career, but fortunately, he has changed that so far this season.

This year, Davis is striking out in “just” 23% of his at bats, while walking in over 14%, or double his career average. Both his strikeout and walk rates appear to be somewhat of a mirage due to the curse that is small sample sizes, but it does give a glimpse into a possible lasting trend.

So, now the question is, is it sustainable?

At first glance, Davis’s .383 BABIP seems quite high, but it actually isn’t too extreme as Davis has a .338 BABIP for his career, and ZIPS projected him to post a .345 mark this season. His BABIP will likely fall, but it most likely won’t be enough to put a significant dent in his production.

Once eyeing Davis’s plate discipline metrics, one gets a better understanding of why his production has spiked. His O-Swing%, which accounts for the percentage of balls outside of the strike zone in which a hitter swings at, is nearly 9% lower than his career average, meaning he has been more patient at the plate. His swing rate has also dropped by 6%, while his overall contact rate has actually been 7.5% higher than his career norm. The main change in his contact rate has to do with Davis’s increased ability to make contact with balls within the strike zone. For his career, Davis has made contact with 78.8% of pitches in the strike zone, but this season, his Z-Contact% has risen to 90.8%

Looking at his batted ball rates, you start to see some discrepancies that may hinder Davis’s output. His line drive rate has actually dropped by nearly 5%, which is contradictory to what it should be based on his results, a sign of a potential step back to reality. Perhaps the biggest change in his results has been the fact that his home run per fly ball ratio has gone from 20% for his career to 30% this season, which likely will not last.

From the data above, one can conclude that Davis’s performance this season has a lot to do with various factors that most likely won’t be sustainable. However, that doesn’t mean he’s not a good player. In 2012, Davis hit 33 home runs and accrued a 2.0 WAR. Taking into account Davis’s strong start to the season, I personally believe he will settle in somewhere in the middle production wise between the two samples. That could mean 35+ home runs, with a OBP in the ~.340 range and a 3-4 WAR. Many teams would covet that type of talent.

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