Back in January, the Baltimore Orioles signed first baseman Chris Davis to a seven-year, $161 million contract. On one hand, it was a lot of money and was a near guarantee to take Davis into his decline years, but on the other hand Davis was coming off a season of 5.6 fWAR in which he led all Major League first basemen in home runs and ISO. Sometimes it’s worth it to pay for that kind of production.
Unfortunately, the production in year one of the new contract hasn’t been quite the same. After putting up a batting line of .262/.361/.562 that was good for a wRC+ of 147 in 2015, Davis is hitting just .227/.340/.462 in 2016. That’s still better than average, but it’s 35 percentage points worse than the year before — down to a wRC+ of just 112 — and takes him out of the rarefied air he was in last season. To provide a reference point, just 12 hitters finished the 2015 season with a wRC+ of 145 or better (Davis being one of those 12, of course), while a whopping 70 had a wRC+ of 110 or better. What took Davis from elite to merely above average?
There are a few things here we can try to point to in order to explain what’s going on here. He’s currently rocking a career-worst 33 percent strikeout rate, which is not good. However, while it is a career high, Davis has always struck out a lot and 33 percent is only marginally higher than his 31 percent rate from 2015, so that doesn’t seem to explain the difference. He’s also hitting more fly balls, fewer line drives, and swinging at fewer pitches in the strike zone. Those may all tie into his pitch selection. Let’s take a look.
Before we can determine the quality of his pitch selection, we first need to know which pitches he should be swinging at. As a hitter, you naturally want to offer at the pitches you can hit the hardest and stay away from the pitches you have a hard time squaring up. We have just the tool for this over at Baseball Savant, where we’re able to see Davis’ average exit velocity by pitch location in 2015:
Using this chart, we can see which pitches Davis should be attacking and which he should be staying away from. First, the pitches he hits hard. These are the pitches he’s most likely to have success against. We’ll use the three zones with the highest average exit velocities — zones 4, 5, and 8 — and compare his swing rate in those zones from last season to this season. The first chart you’ll see is from last season, the second is from this season:
Anything you see here that isn’t a called strike or ball means Davis swung at the pitch. In 2015, he went after pitches in his hot zones 74.3 percent of the time. So far in 2016, he has swung only 67.4 percent of the time. That’s about seven percentage points less often than last year. Certainly not ideal, but hopefully he’s offset that by also swinging less at the pitches he struggles against. We’ll do the same thing as before, but this time we’re looking at the three zones with the lowest average exit velocity (12, 14, and 3). Again, 2015 will come first.
In 2015, Davis swung at pitches in his cold zones 35.2 percent of the time. So far in 2016, that number has actually gone up to 40.5 percent, more than a five percentage-point increase. If you compound that with the fact that Davis is also swinging less in the areas he does well, you get a real problem starting to emerge.
Swinging at fewer good pitches and more bad pitches is naturally going to lead to fewer balls being hit on the barrel, which in turn is going to lead to lesser power numbers. This is backed up in the numbers themselves, as Davis has seen his ISO drop from .300 to .235. He’s also on pace for just 63 extra-base hits in 2016 after having 78 a year ago. Never someone to hit for an extremely high average, Davis relies on power for his offensive value. While a .235 ISO is still good, it again takes him out of the elite company he was in previously. He was one of only two players with an ISO of .300 or better in 2015; in 2016, he’s one of 28 players with an ISO of .235 or better. That’s a much less exclusive club to be a part of.
The 2016 version of Chris Davis hasn’t been the same hitter we saw in 2015, and a big part of that has been the pitches he’s been swinging at. To get back to being the dominant hitter he was a year ago, he’ll need to start picking the right spots to swing again.
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Ryan Freemyer is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Sore. He also writes for Purple Row, SB Nation's Colorado Rockies blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @RFreemyer.