[Editor's Note: This is Duncan's first article with us. Welcome him aboard!]
Ike Davis got picked up from Pittsburgh this offseason for effectively nothing. Well, not nothing. $269.9K in international bonus slot money is technically something! But only technically. Davis had been struggling for years, and Pittsburgh left him on the curbside in a box marked "free to a good home".
On the surface, this seemed like a very A’s move — the past couple years of Athletics baseball have been marked by an emphasis on walks and home runs. Most key members of the A’s team that was split up this winter had high walk rates combined with good power: Brandon Moss, Josh Donaldson, Derek Norris, Coco Crisp, and John Jaso all maintained walk rates greater than 10.0% between 2013 and 2014. Adam Dunn, the founder and patron saint of this hitting approach, joined the team for the stretch run in 2014.
In that sense, Ike Davis to the A’s seemed a foregone conclusion. When he first came up with the Mets, he seemed the heir apparent to the Adam Dunn School of Hitting. He reached relative national fame with his 2012 season, hitting 33 home runs with a 10.4% walk rate. Poor defense and contact rates turned him into a one-dimensional player, and he ended up totaling only 1.0 fWAR and a 112 wRC+ despite his gaudy amount of dingers, but this was the player most people talk about when they talk about Ike Davis.
The biggest problem with Davis, though, was that his approach at the plate left a lot to be desired. There’s nothing extreme here, no crazy smoking gun that would explain his rapid decline in 2013, but there are certainly worrying and less-than-ideal trends.
He swung at only 61.5% of pitches in the zone, solidly in the lower third of hitters. He swung at 30.7% of pitches out of the strike zone, solidly in the upper third of hitters. So, essentially, he swung at pitches that he should’ve taken and took pitches he should’ve swung at. Power makes up for a lot, but this is an exceedingly ugly way to approach a plate appearance.
This can also be forgiven if you’re gifted at making contact. Unfortunately, Ike Davis1.0 was not. He ended up with an ugly 74.5% contact rate (24th lowest in baseball), driven by an 83.6% contact rate on pitches in the zone (27th lowest).
These aren’t especially extreme. 2012 Ike Davis could make this work with good power. But his struggle with valley fever in the offseason between 2012 and 2013 appears to have sapped his power. From 2010 to 2012, he had a .209 ISO. From 2013 to this year, he had a .137 ISO. For a three true outcomes guy, being left with only two true outcomes is a death sentence.
Once his power started to dissipate, he simply could not get away with his subpar approach at the plate. Davis morphed into a replacement level player, worth exactly 0.2 fWAR across his 804 plate appearances in 2013 and 2014.
So, instead of continuing on the path of replacement-level scrub, he made the most profound change in approach I’ve ever seen. This trend was first discovered by Neil Weinberg at Fangraphs. In that piece, Weinburg points out that Davis’ contact rate rose by 7.4%, an increase second only to Yasiel Puig.
The 7.4% increase is impressive. It’s very impressive, impressive enough to gain attention as a massive change in skills and approach. Increases like that usually happen only once in a hitters’ career, if ever.
It’s even more impressive when you consider that he’s doing it again. Davis is currently running out an 87.9% contact rate, which is exactly 6% above last years’ mark and good for 17th highest in the league. Other players in the neighborhood: Adam Eaton, Joe Panik, Matt Carpenter, and Victor Martinez. Ike Davis and Joe Panik, similar players. Baseball!
His other plate discipline stats are crazy and un-Davis-like as well. Obviously, with his super high contact percent, his swinging strike rate is crazy-low: 4.4%, 14th lowest in baseball. This is an improvement of 6.8% since 2012, when it was the 35th highest in baseball.
There’s one number that really sticks out in his plate discipline profile, though: he is making contact with 84.9% of the pitches out of the strikezone, the 6th highest in the league. I referenced Marco Scutaro in the title of this article, and although Scutaro’s ability to make contact is legendary, Ike Davis’s contact rates this season deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.
So, Ike Davis is no longer Ike Davis. But the new him is working on his new team: he’s hitting .314/.380/.443 through his first 79 PAs. The .350 BABIP caveat applies — it’s .065 over his career norms — but I’m hesitant to trust any of his career norms at this point. Nü-Davis is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
But there’s one thing I know: At the rate he’s improving, he’s on track to make contact with every single pitch thrown to him in 2017. This will happen. I guarantee it.
. . .
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Duncan Morrow is a Contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @DunxMuro.