This past Tuesday on MLB Network’s Clubhouse Confidential, I predicted that Mets first basemen Ike Davis would be the breakout player in MLB this coming season. Yes, it was a bit of a homer pick, but I had solid reasoning to back it up. In his first 754 plate appearances in the big leagues, Davis put up an OBP of .355, a SLG of .457, and a wOBA of .352 all while playing in the pitcher-friendly Citi Field. That translates to a 121 wRC+, not bad considering only six other players 24 years old or younger have ever matched or exceeded that total over their first 800 plate appearances.
While watching Davis go 0-for-4 with two strike outs in yesterday’s opener I noticed something interesting: the Braves only threw Davis one fastball out of 18 total pitches. Not only that, but 41% of those pitches where thrown low and away, with Davis striking out twice on pitches in that area.
We can’t read too much into performance metrics in the early part of the season, especially after the first game, but the strategy executed by the Braves yesterday is consistent with the book on Ike, and may have provided a preview of what the young slugger will see throughout the year.
After a strong rookie campaign in 2010, Davis came out of the gate like a beast in 2011, putting up a triple slash of .337/.414/.660 and a wOBA of .426 through April. Davis cooled off a bit in May, but finished the year with a line of .302/.383/.543 and a wOBA of .391.
Davis only last 149 plate appearances before going down with an ankle injury, but there did appear to be some changes in his approach and performance at the plate.
First, Davis increased his effectiveness on balls down the middle and down and in compared to 2010. The charts below show the change in Davis’ wOBA per pitch (2011 minus 2010), and you can see how Davis punished balls down the middle of the plate while also improving on balls down and inside.
Second, while Davis didn’t offer at pitches much more than in 2010, he did become more aggressive at pitches across the zone that were belt-high or higher. The one zone where his swing patter barely changed? Low and away. Davis swung at pitches in that location almost 25% of the time. This also happens to be the zone where pitchers threw Davis the most pitches and also increased the most from 2010:
Throwing a power hitter like Davis a significant number of pitches down and away is not odd. However, the problem for Davis is that he often misses at those pitches when he does offer at them. Davis had a 40% whiff rate on pitches down and away in 2011, a roughly 5% increase from 2010. There is no other zone where Davis offers at and misses more pitches.
If pitchers can get Ike to bite on pitches low and away at the same rate in 2012, it will be difficult for him to have that breakout season I predicted (and, as a Mets fan, so desperately want to see). Balls low and away are more likely to be taken for balls, so there is some advantage to the hitter if pitches decide to throw there. But not if the hitter offers at those pitches 25% of the time considering if they do make contact, there isn’t much to be gained.
This is true for Davis. Below we see Davis’ wOBA per pitch from 2011 and 2010. Pitches low and away represent the second lowest wOBA per pitch of any zone. Not only that, but the positive value he does get is simply because, if taken, those pitches won’t be strikes. When Davis has made contact he’s only managed a handful of singles.
It’s clear Atlanta had a game plan yesterday, and they executed well on it. Braves pitchers pounded Davis down and away and he either struck out or made very weak contact on those pitches. Atlanta played the odds, knowing that even if Davis took some of those pitches for balls they would gain the overall advantage, since Davis is prone to swinging and either missing or making weak contact. Atlanta didn’t devise some new approach to Ike, but what they did is likely to be the approach by most opposing teams this year.
If Davis does not adjust, it will be a long season for him. He has tremendous power and, I believe, the ability to become one of the most feared sluggers in the National League. But that won’t happen if pitchers know they can live down and away without fear of much in the way of a negative outcome. That, in my eyes, is Davis’ biggest challenge this year.
Bill leads Predictive Modeling and Data Science consulting at Gallup. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, has consulted for a Major League Baseball team, and has appeared on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential as well as several MLB-produced documentaries. He is also the creator of the baseballr package for the R programming language. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @BillPetti.