Chris Davis, good but not great

Mitchell Layton

After setting the baseball world ablaze with a magnificent 2013 season, Chris Davis has fallen back to earth in 2014. The lesson to be learned? Projections systems are pretty good.

After putting up mediocre numbers in parts of three seasons with the Texas Rangers, Chris Davis was traded to the Baltimore Orioles along with Tommy Hunter for Koji Uehara. In his first full season with the O's Crush had his best season, hitting .270/.326/.501 with 33 home runs. The next season Davis went off. He drilled nine home runs in the first month of the season, posting a 208 wRC+. Then in May he hit 10 dingers with a 224 wRC+ followed by 12 home runs and a 173 wRC+ in June. All told, he managed a 195 wRC+ in the first half. Davis' second half was less spectacular as he hit .245/.339/.515 but overall he produced a .286/.370/.634 batting line with 53 home runs for a 167 wRC+ and 6.8 fWAR.

2013 was a huge breakout year for Davis, who prior to that season had a career line of .258/.310/.466 for an even 100 wRC+ and 0.9 fWAR in over 1500 plate appearances. This season hasn't been as kind to Davis, as he is managing a .208/.329/.408 batting line for a 100 wRC+ with 13 home runs. By way of comparison, he was hitting .332/.406/.728 with 31 home runs at this point last year.

What's been different for Davis this year?

Davis is striking out a lot this year, but that's nothing new. His 30 percent strikeout rate is only nominally higher than last season, and it's right in line with his career rate. He's walking at a career high 13 percent thanks to a chase rate that is three percentage points lower than last year. It's not an issue of not getting pitches to hit, as Davis is seeing a 63 percent first-pitch strike rate which is higher than the major league average, and while his zone rate is lower than average, it's a few percentage points higher than last year.

His batted ball ratios are pretty similar to last season. There's a few more line drives and a few more ground balls and as a consequence his fly ball rate has dipped from 45.7 percent to 40.6 percent, but that's right in line with his career rate. Davis is generally avoiding the infield fly ball. Davis has a lower HR/FB ratio of 20.6 percent compared to 29.6 percent last season, but once again that's not far off his career rate of 22.3 percent. Cruz has the same rate of pulled fly balls and his average distance on home runs and fly balls is just five feet shorter than what it was last year.

A big difference is Davis' in-play batting average, which is sitting at .259. Last season he had a .336 BABIP, and his career rate is .328. There's good evidence which suggests that Davis has fallen on some tough luck, as his xBABIP is .344. While the home run power is certainly down, it looks as if he should have a much higher average.

With his very high strikeout rate, Davis isn't a hitter with much margin for error. This season a few more of his fly balls are staying in the yard. Over the remainder of the season ZiPS projects a .252/.338/.513 line with 18 home runs and a 130 wRC+. Good but not great numbers. This season isn't a slump. Rather, last season was Davis playing over his head, and this season is a combination of expected regression and poor luck.

The main point to be taken is that projections systems are right even when they're wrong. Davis exceeded expectations by a huge margin in 2013, but that doesn't mean his 2014 projections can be thrown out. Far too often we put too much faith into breakouts by young players. By the same token we're too quick to write off older players after a down year. Perhaps it's a boring answer, but going forward Davis isn't as mediocre as he's been this year, and he's not as great as he was last year. If you sided with the projection systems and said he's somewhere in the middle, you're probably right.

Stats courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Heat Maps and Baseball-Reference

Chris Moran is a former college baseball player and current law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He's also an assistant baseball coach at Wash U. In addition to Beyond The Box Score, he contributes at Prospect Insider and Gammons Daily. He went to his first baseball game at age two. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves

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