Chris Davis: A Risk in Free Agency

Chris Davis is a man of prodigious strength. His efforts, or sometimes lack thereof, have been chronicled by FanGraphs multiple times. Since Davis’ first season with the Baltimore Orioles in 2012, he leads all of major league baseball with 159 home runs and only Edwin Encarnacion is even within 20 home runs of him. Just 10 players are within 50 home runs of Davis over the last four years, which means even if Davis had hit zero home runs in 2015 instead of 47, he would rank in the top 10 over the last four years. As power has become increasingly rare over the past decade, Davis made a great comeback after a disappointing 2014 and is set to get paid in free agency this winter. Looking for comparable players, we can attempt to find out how much that great power is worth as Davis heads into his 30s.

To find historical comps for Davis, first I looked for players from 1960 through 2008 who’d produced a similar number of wins in a similar time framce — in this case, between 10 and 20 WAR through their age-29 seasons. As this is not an incredibly high bar, there were more than 300 players in resulting pool. To further narrow sample, I looked for players who fit a similar offensive profile, so within 10 points of Davis’ 121 wRC+ mark and at least a .200 isolated slugging (Davis’ is .251). This narrowed down the list to 42 players. Limiting the list only to players within 25% of Davis’ 3,512 plate appearances left just 31 players. Davis is coming off 47 home runs, a 147 wRC+, and a 5.6 WAR. Eliminating all players with a wRC+ below 125 or under 400 PA in their age-29 seasons left 15 players, many of whom appear very Chris Davis-like.

Chris Davis Comps Through Age 29
Name PA HR ISO wRC+ Off Def WAR
Lee May 3716 176 0.214 127 107.9 -58.2 19.6
Kirk Gibson 3104 126 0.205 128 112.9 -31.8 19.1
Trot Nixon 2739 106 0.218 122 77.9 -1.4 16.8
Carl Everett 2726 103 0.202 117 63.0 19.2 16.4
Tino Martinez 3495 157 0.211 115 67.4 -19.1 16.4
Cliff Floyd 3556 132 0.209 121 107.4 -54.8 16.3
Ryan Klesko 3369 165 0.242 128 120.8 -61.3 16.0
Jason Bay 3259 149 0.234 130 141.4 -88.2 15.9
Frank Howard 3445 162 0.210 127 108.2 -77.1 15.4
David Ortiz 3584 177 0.252 129 116.9 -89.3 14.9
Bobby Higginson 3434 134 0.208 118 80.9 -60.3 13.5
Dave Kingman 3385 204 0.252 115 55.4 -44.8 13.2
Pat Burrell 4145 188.0 0.221 117 73.1 -78.5 12.9
Tony Clark 3212 156 0.225 117 67.8 -61.8 11.5
Jay Buhner 2944 129 0.215 122 73.4 -69.3 10.2
AVERAGE 3341 151 0.221 122 91.6 -51.8 15.2
Chris Davis 3512 203 0.251 121 86.8 -67.6 14.5

Davis comes up a little bit higher in terms of power, but in offensive value, he is right around the midpoint of the group. In a comparison Scott Boras is likely to love, Davis’ career through age-29 looks a lot like David Ortiz’. Nor is it just through age 29 where the comparison exists. As only players with good age-29 seasons were included in the group, here are the above players’ age-29 seasons, among which group Davis compares favorably.

Chris Davis Comps at Age 29
Name PA HR ISO wRC+ Off Def WAR
Tino Martinez 685 44 0.281 141 35.9 -5.9 5.3
David Ortiz 713 47 0.304 157 45.7 -17 5.3
Trot Nixon 513 28 0.272 152 33.6 -0.2 5.0
Carl Everett 561 34 0.286 135 27.1 3.3 4.7
Bobby Higginson 679 30 0.238 131 30.5 -8.5 4.3
Cliff Floyd 609 28 0.244 139 35.0 -18.4 3.7
Kirk Gibson 521 28 0.224 136 27.3 -9.5 3.6
Ryan Klesko 590 26 0.233 135 29.2 -13.7 3.2
Jason Bay 670 31 0.236 133 32.8 -24.8 3.0
Lee May 647 29 0.206 137 26.6 -24.0 3.0
Jay Buhner 436 21 0.263 138 21.5 -10.6 2.5
Frank Howard 549 18 0.164 127 16.4 -10.4 2.3
Dave Kingman 448 28 0.276 131 14.5 -8.8 2.2
Tony Clark 497 16 0.194 125 15.3 -14.7 1.7
Pat Burrell 567 29 0.245 126 14.6 -18.1 1.5
AVERAGE 579 29 0.244 136 27.1 -12.1 3.4
Chris Davis 670 47 0.300 147 36.3 -5.5 5.6

While Davis’ age-29 season puts him even with some great seasons by David Ortiz and Tino Martinez, his inconsistent past, including a 2014 season in which he hit just .196/.300/.404, keep his comps on a more terrestrial level. The end of 2014 resulted in a 25-game suspension for Davis after he tested positive for Adderall twice. He had a therapeutic use exemption for the drug prior to 2013, but did not have one for either 2013 or 2014 when he was suspended. He gained an exemption this past season for a different drug to treat his attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, so the matter is unlikely to cause trouble again.

Among the players we find here, David Ortiz appears to profile as the most promising of comparables for Davis, but at age 30 and beyond, Ortiz is not even the best of Davis’ comps. That honor goes to Frank Howard. The chart below reveals the performance in the theoretical first four years of Davis’ free agent deal, where his team would hope for the best performance before a likely decline near the end of a contract.

Chris Davis Comps at Age-30 Through Age-33
Name PA HR ISO wRC+ Off Def WAR
Frank Howard 2656 172 0.269 163 183.2 -90 19.4
Kirk Gibson 1851 66 0.182 128 70.0 0.8 13.7
David Ortiz 2471 140 0.279 141 114.2 -59.7 13.6
Ryan Klesko 2217 89 0.217 135 106.8 -61.3 11.7
Jay Buhner 2157 139 0.275 126 73.1 -51.1 9.5
Tino Martinez 2540 106 0.201 107 21.5 -27.9 8.1
Lee May 2389 97 0.184 114 36.3 -43.8 7.3
Cliff Floyd 1884 81 0.210 116 47.2 -36.4 7.2
Dave Kingman 1888 125 0.263 122 49.2 -59.2 5.6
Trot Nixon 1444 30 0.139 102 1.8 5.4 5.6
Pat Burrell 2156 97 0.220 118 38.9 -54.0 5.6
Jason Bay 1763 62 0.182 107 23.9 -27.4 5.3
Bobby Higginson 2203 53 0.146 103 5.7 -31.5 4.9
Carl Everett 1779 65 0.186 104 5.1 -45.5 2.0
Tony Clark 1254 65 0.230 100 -5.6 -18.3 1.8
AVERAGE 2043 92 0.212 119 51.4 -40.0 8.1
AVG/YR 511 23 0.212 119 12.9 -10.0 2.0

Howard was a massive (6-foot-7, 250 pound) outfielder and three true outcomes hitter before they became en vogue. He walked in more than 10% of his career plate appearances and struck out nearly 20% time, 30%-40% more than league average. He had always hit well with the Dodgers, but after moving to the Washington Senators, his career took off with three straight five-win seasons, while recording at least 44 homers and a 160 wRC+ in all three years. As for Ortiz, little needs to be said about him that the reader won’t already know. Overall the group hit pretty well, but as defensive numbers declined, the group as a whole struggled to stay above average.

Jeff Passan at Yahoo rated Davis his top free agent position player, and Jon Heyman rated him the second overall free agent, predicting a seven-year, $182 million contract — while both Dave Cameron and the FanGraphs crowd gave Davis a more modest five-year contract at around $20 million per year. Looking at the comps above, we can attempt to place a value on the potential seven-year deal. The following chart adds ages 34-36 to the above chart to show the total value.

Chris Davis Comps at Age-30 Through Age-36
Name PA HR ISO wRC+ Off Def WAR
Frank Howard 3908 220 0.239 151 217.2 -128.3 23.4
David Ortiz 4065 224 0.272 145 188 -99.0 22.8
Kirk Gibson 2905 97 0.176 119 76.8 -26.8 15.0
Ryan Klesko 3154 113 0.199 127 113.9 -74.4 14.1
Tino Martinez 4201 165 0.191 107 29.1 -49.5 12.1
Jay Buhner 2983 181 0.264 124 94.1 -72.8 12.0
Cliff Floyd 2507 101 0.197 113 49.5 -48.6 8.3
Dave Kingman 3440 203 0.236 115 62.6 -100.2 8.0
Lee May 4099 168 0.176 107 29.3 -87.3 7.9
Pat Burrell 2375 104 0.216 118 43.2 -60.1 6.1
Trot Nixon 1485 31 0.138 101 -0.1 5.9 5.6
Jason Bay 1999 73 0.183 106 22.3 -35.0 5.2
Bobby Higginson 2230 53 0.144 101 0.6 -32.9 4.3
Carl Everett 2669 99 0.178 97 -14.4 -65.9 1.1
Tony Clark 1830 91 0.217 95 -22.8 -30.9 0.7
AVERAGE 2923 128 0.202 115 59.3 -60.4 9.7
AVG/YR 418 18 0.202 115 8.5 -8.6 1.4

Those last three years don’t add much value to the overall value of this group, as the players continue to decline. On average, the Davis comps added just half a win per player per season in the final three years. Only four of 15 players were able to average two wins per season over the full seven years. Teams should expect this decline and hopefully gain a surplus of value in the first few years of any contract before a likely overpayment near the end.

The graph below features three sets of numbers: the average values of the comps separated into thirds, lowest to highest. This should provide reasonable expectations for Davis in the best case, most reasonable, and worst case scenario. The values are based on the current cost of a win at $8 million and rising 5% per year from inflation. As the charts above would suggest, there is a great disparity in potential values.

CHRIS DAVIS VALUES BASED ON AGE-30 THROUGH AGE-36 COMPS

Averaging the 15 players instead of dividing them into thirds yields around $91 million over seven years. Using only the WAR averages from the first four seasons results in a value right around $70 million. Like any player who has shown he is capable of hitting 50 home runs, Davis has some really good, really impressive comps. Unfortunately, the big power, no defense profile does not always age well into a player’s 30s. Davis is certainly capable of continuing his 2015 season into the future, but there is considerable downside. If the amounts speculated about come close to his eventual contract, the signing team will be taking a substantial bet on his upside, but exposing themselves to considerable risk.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Eric
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Eric

I’m guessing the comment: “only Edwin Encarnacion is even within 20 home runs” is meant to say 10 as Edwin has only 8 fewer home runs since 2012.

Edwin
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Edwin

He meant exactly what he said: No one other than myself is within 20 home runs of Crush.

Eric
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Eric

Ahh my bad. Was too focused on the exact figures and not the intent of the comment.

joser
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joser

The “20 home run” spread is a comparison to the third</i< guy on the list: Nelson Cruz at 135, which is 25 fewer than Davis. Thus the only player "within 20" (or even 24) home runs of Davis is the guy ahead of Cruz, Edwin Encarnacion.