Chris Davis, 2014: What Happened?

Unless the Baltimore Orioles advance to the World Series, the 2014 book is closed on their slugging first baseman, Chris Davis. After breaking out in a big way with a 53-home-run tour de force in 2013, Davis crashed to earth this season, hitting half as many homers while losing 90 points off of his batting average before a 25-game suspension for Adderall usage brought his campaign to a premature halt. Just by watching him for even a couple of days, it’s easy to see that Davis is a high variance, all-or-nothing hitter, but even then such a sudden decline at age 28 is beyond the pale. Which Davis — the 2013 MVP candidate or the 2014 Mendoza Line flirter — is closer to the real thing?

There are a handful of Chris Davises in every year’s amateur draft: Guys with massive raw power who swing and miss constantly. Both the Yankees (50th round, 2004) and the Angels (35th round, 2005) took late-round flyers on Davis after his senior year of high school and his freshman year of junior college, respectively, but Davis returned to school instead. He finally inked a pro deal with the Rangers after being drafted much higher, in the fifth round, after his sophomore year at Navarro College in Texas.

Davis immediately and consistently destroyed minor league pitching, hitting 15 homers in two months worth of short-season ball in 2006 and 36 more in his first full pro season in 2007 despite being aggressively promoted to High-A, and then to Double-A by season’s end. Davis batted .318-.374-.596 in his minor league career, hitting 118 homers in just 1811 at bats — though he struck out 494 times. Each year, I compile an ordered list of top minor league position-player prospects based upon both production and age relative to one’s league. Davis ranked among the Top 50 four times, peaking at No. 3 in 2007 and No. 8 in 2008. Players with such a minor league track record tend to eventually experience material major league success.

Eventually is the key word there. After a strong major league debut in 2008, major league pitchers actively attacked Davis’ weaknesses — and he was quite slow to respond. They years 2009, 2010 and 2011 were largely lost seasons at the major-league level, as Davis’ K rate was locked in well above 30%. That meant he would have to absolutely devastate the baseball when he did make contact to be a productive big leaguer, particularly at a position on the wrong end of the defensive spectrum. During this period, I worked for the Seattle Mariners, and we had an opportunity to acquire Davis as part of the Cliff Lee deal. We may even have been able to acquire him in addition to Justin Smoak, but other players were instead added to the deal. In 2012, Davis finally experienced his major league breakthrough, but even that was nothing compared to his massive 2013 campaign.

So what keyed Davis’ breakthrough, and was it real? Similarly, what triggered his 2014 decline, and is there material hope for a reversal going forward? Let’s examine his 2013-2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to gain greater perspective. First, the frequency data:

FREQ – 2013
C.Davis % REL PCT
K 29.6% 163 95
BB 10.7% 133 83
POP 4.2% 54 12
FLY 42.2% 147 99
LD 23.1% 107 71
GB 30.5% 73 3
FREQ – 2014
C.Davis % REL PCT
K 33.0% 163 98
BB 11.4% 148 86
POP 8.7% 113 63
FLY 33.2% 119 81
LD 23.0% 111 79
GB 35.1% 80 13

Looking at the 2013 data, there’s a little bit of everything. There are wildly positive items such as an extremely low popup rate (12 percentile rank) coupled with an extremely high fly ball rate (99 percentile rank). That combo is almost impossible to attain. There’s a high walk rate (83 percentile rank) and a high liner rate (71 percentile rank). There is one wildly negative item, obviously: his massive K rate (95 percentile rank).

Standing out more than anything else is the extreme disconnect between his fly ball and ground-ball rates. If you remove the popups from the equation, MLB hitters had an average fly ball rate of 28.8% and grounder rate of 41.7% in 2013. Of the 135 American League primary position players/DHs (one per position per club), exactly 17 had more fly balls than grounders. On that list of 17, there were a bunch of older players poised to decline/disappear in 2014 (Raul Ibanez, Kelly Johnson, Nick Swisher, A.J. Pierzynski, Brian Roberts), some high-risk younger/less experienced players also primed for 2014 struggles (Nick Franklin, Justin Smoak, Daniel Nava), a few all-or-nothing types (Davis, Colby Rasmus, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Chris Carter), a couple of Oakland A’s (Brandon Moss and Jed Lowrie) plus Evan Longoria and Asdrubal Cabrera, who have also both declined in recent years. Among that group, Davis, Moss and Rasmus have the most extreme fly ball tendencies.

In 2014, Davis’ K rate climbed even higher . The percentile rank doesn’t move much, from 93 to 98, but ratcheting up one’s K rate by over 10% from an already extreme level is quite significant. The popup rate has more than doubled, with its percentile rank soaring to 63. The fly ball rate dropped precipitously from 42.2% to 33.2%, to an 81 percentile rank. So now Davis has a less “unnatural” batted ball mix, but for such a power-dependent slugger, taking away a large number of fly balls is a dangerous thing. In 2013, 32.5% of Davis’ fly balls went over the fence. That ratio is down only slightly to 27.3% in 2014. The big problem is he has hit 45% fewer fly balls in 2014 compared to 2013. The raw number of fly balls hit by Davis in 2013 was off-the-charts high, and expecting a repeat performance was folly. That list of 17 extreme fly ball guys appears to be a list that predicts bad tidings over the long haul, though a short-term bonanza can be reaped.

And this is just the frequency information. There’s bound to be much more interesting data as we take a look at his production by batted-ball type:

PROD – 2013
FLY 0.500 1.588 396 393
LD 0.730 0.978 126 123
GB 0.155 0.172 44 94
ALL BIP 0.423 0.941 248 261
ALL PA 0.281 0.359 0.624 174 181
PROD – 2014
FLY 0.375 1.250 245 271
LD 0.623 0.787 85 117
GB 0.129 0.140 28 90
ALL BIP 0.311 0.643 125 170
ALL PA 0.193 0.287 0.399 93 118

Davis’ actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

First of all, not too many players damage the baseball in the air like Chris Davis. Batting .500 AVG-1.588 SLG on fly balls is simply ridiculous. His 393 REL PRD after adjustment for context, as you might imagine, was the best in the majors in 2013. Giancarlo Stanton (364) and Miguel Cabrera (358) were next best. In 2014, Davis’ fly ball production — even after adjustment for context — hasn’t been quite as extreme, but it’s still pretty darned good at a 271 REL PRD. On average, he hit his fly balls a little harder in 2013 than in 2014, but his percentage of fly balls hit at 100 mph or higher has actually increased, from 23.1% in 2013 to 27.3% in 2014. Again, it’s the huge volume drop in the number of fly balls hit that has taken its toll on Davis’ overall 2014 numbers.

Another significant factor with regard to Davis’ fly ball production has been the exit angle of those fly balls. If you split the population of fly balls between “high” fly balls and “low” fly balls — at the midpoint between the popup and line-drive boundaries — there is a stark difference in production. In 2013, MLB hitters batted .093 AVG/.223 SLG on high fly balls (about 35% of the total) and .385 AVG/1.019 SLG on low fly balls (the other 65%). Davis hits extremely high fly balls: 39.8% of his 2014 fly balls have been “high” fly balls this season. He hits many of them so hard that they leave the park anyway, but consider this: In all of MLB in 2013, 179 of the 183 fly balls hit at 105 mph or higher left the yard. This season, Davis alone has hit two 105-plus-mph flyouts that stayed in the yard because they easily fit into the “high” fly ball category. Yet more unnatural stuff that applies to Chris Davis.

You will notice that the ADJ PRD, adjusted for context, figures for line drive and grounder production have changed very little from 2013 to 2014 — both going down a bit from 123 and 94 to 117 and 90. Just look at the actual REL PRD figures, though. Davis’ liner production is way down from 126 in 2013 to 85 in 2014; his grounder production is down from an already miniscule 44 to an even lower 28. The REL PRD figures tell us he’s hitting the ball nearly as hard in 2014, but his production is way off. This isn’t luck. This is the result of Davis’ extreme, to put it mildly, pull tendency on liners and grounders, and the resulting overshifts that have squeezed his production.

I often use a simple but useful stat called pull ratio. For a lefty, it’s the number of balls hit to (RCF + RF)/(LF + LCF). For all batted balls combined, it has limited value, but when you separate the fly balls, liners and grounders, it gets interesting. In 2013, the average MLB lefty had a fly ball pull ratio of 1.18, a line drive pull ratio of 1.86 and a grounder pull ratio of 4.79. Davis’ fly ball ratio is pretty normal at 1.19. He has home run power to all fields. His liner and grounder pull ratios, however, are outliers at 3.64 and 7.27. This is the reason he is significantly underperforming his batted-ball authority on liners and grounders — opponents know where such balls are going to be hit and then station their defenders accordingly. Davis might be the only hitter in baseball whose production on liners is as negatively impacted by overshifting as his production on grounders.

The words “unnatural” and “outlier” seemingly come up again and again with regard to Davis. With such an extreme K rate, he needs to possess elite ball-striking ability to survive, let alone thrive. Last season was a perfect storm. Davis destroyed the baseball, and he was able to elevate the baseball at a basically unmatched rate — without a correspondingly high popup rate. In 2014, he simply became less unnatural. He’s popping up at a much higher rate, albeit an acceptable one for someone with so much power. He’s hitting fly balls at a normal rate. He’s still hitting liners at a very high rate. How low could his batting average go if were to lose this skill?

Many lessons can be learned from Davis’ plight. If you’re going to strike out, you had better crush the baseball on a regular basis and do it to all fields, at all exit angles. One simply cannot strike out one third of the time and bat below .150 on grounders because of an extreme pull tendency and expect to thrive offensively. Davis is 12-for-28 (.429) on line drives and 2-for-65 (.031) on grounders hit to the right field sector in 2014, both dramatically below MLB norms. It doesn’t matter how hard you hit the ball if a bunch of guys are standing where they know it’s going to be hit.

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9 years ago

Kids, don’t do amphetamines. Look what it did to Chris Davis.