Chris Davis and the Free Agent Bottleneck

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is traditionally a quiet one in baseball circles, as most home offices are closed, and many top executives vacation far, far away. This year hasn’t exactly been typical, with one big trade (Aroldis Chapman to the Yanks) and one reasonably significant free agent signing already in the books (Henderson Alvarez to the A’s) and another one pending a physical (Daniel Murphy to the Nationals).

There are still many big name free agents yet to sign on with their new clubs, and most of them are of the position player variety. Outfielders Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes and Alex Gordon, to name just three, are still on the board. So is first baseman Chris Davis, whose recent offensive contributions outstrip even those three. The Orioles reportedly offered Davis in the vicinity of $150 million over seven years to remain in the fold, only to be rebuffed. Has that offer clogged up position player free agency? And is an investment of that magnitude in this sort of player a wise one?

It seems so long ago that Davis was a top Ranger prospect, alternately dominating in the minor leagues and struggling to stick at the major league level. He was selected in the fifth round of the 2006 draft out of two-year Navarro College in Texas, and was primarily a third baseman in the minors. He tore apart each successive minor league level, batting .318/.374/.596 in just over 2000 plate appearances.

Each year, I compile my own list of top minor league position player prospects, based on production and age relative to league and level. Davis sat near the top of my list throughout his minor league tenure, qualifying five straight seasons, appearing four times in the top 50, and peaking at #3 in 2007. His strengths and weaknesses were obvious: Davis’s swing possessed big power and big holes simultaneously. A Joey Gallo prequel, one might say.

It took him a while to stake his claim to a permanent major league job. His first stab at the big leagues in 2008 was quite successful — he batted .285/.331/.549 in a 295 plate appearance trial with the Rangers — but it would be four full seasons and a change of scenery later before he would experience comparable major league success.

When I was in the Seattle Mariner front office, we had substantial discussions with the Rangers regarding a potential Cliff Lee deal, which was eventually consummated. Davis was front and center in those talks, along with Justin Smoak, who was eventually the centerpiece of the deal. Davis was clearly available, even then, during the 2010 season.

A year later, at the 2011 trade deadline, Davis was on the move — in this case to the Orioles, along with Tommy Hunter, for Koji Uehara. Davis capped a mediocre big league campaign with just a pair of homers in 129 plate appearances as an Oriole the rest of the way. Still, he was only 25 years old, retained the massive raw power he had always exhibited, and continued to maul Triple-A pitching when given the opportunity.

Davis finally found his comfort zone in 2012, and hasn’t looked back. He’s averaged just a shade under 40 homers per season in his four years as the O’s full-time first sacker, and entered free agency this offseason. He has been far from a consistent performer over that span, to put it mildly. In the odd-numbered years, Davis clobbered 100 homers and slugged about .600, while in the evens, he hit 59 homers and slugged around .450. It’s been quite the rollercoaster ride for the big lefty, and for the Orioles.

So, now he’s on the market, and doesn’t turn 30 until spring training. The golden rule of free agency is to pay players for what they are going to do, not what they have done. There would certainly appear to be a wide range of potential outcomes for Davis moving forward. How does a prospective employer go about valuing him?

Let’s take a somewhat unorthodox crack at it. I set about to find the most comparable MLB regulars since 1901, based upon number of combined standard deviations above/below league average OBP and SLG at similar age and experience levels. In addition, I looked for players with similar OBP and SLG component profiles; we’re not just looking for players with similar production, we’re looking for players who compiled that production in a similar manner.

I know, I know… summing standard deviations isn’t statistically “pure,” It does allow us, however, to compare players who are pretty far away from league average, and it gives us the advantage of splitting the OBP and SLG components of players’ skill sets.

There aren’t a lot of comps out there for Chris Davis. I looked for players at age 29, within one year of Davis’ five years as an MLB regular, who compiled between a combined 5.00 and 10.00 standard deviations (STD) above league average OBP and SLG, with a below league average OBP component (below 0.00) for his career to date. I came up with four, count ’em four, players, including Davis:

Chris Davis Player Comps
AGE-YRS CTD OBP CTD SLG LAST REG CAR OBP CAR SLG
George Bell 29-6 -0.38 8.13 33 -5.21 9.12
Matt Williams 29-6 -2.19 9.10 35 -5.21 11.30
Lee May 29-6 -0.90 7.05 36 -7.49 10.85
Chris Davis 29-5 -0.04 6.73

George Bell, Matt Williams and Lee May all went on to have long careers as regulars, with Bell’s last such season at age 33, Williams’ at 35, and May’s at 36. All experienced their career peaks quite early, however. As you see, their career OBP components, already below average at age 29, fell apart afterward. Bell declined from a -0.38 cumulative STD below league average at age 29 to -5.21 after age 33; Williams, from -2.19 at 29 to -5.21 at age 35; and May from -0.90 at age 29 to -7.49 at age 36. All three players saw their SLG component increase after age 29, but not by as large an amount as their OBP component decreased.

What happened to these three players? A couple of things. First, their batted ball authority declined. This is natural; these guys were mashers, and “mashing” ability is affected by age. Contact Score — production on all BIP relative to the league (100 = average), after removal of K and BB — is a solid proxy for authority. Bell’s career contact score through age 29 was 128.1; after his age-33 season, it had declined to 118.9. Between age 30-33, it was 103.3. Williams’ career contact score through age 29 was 154.1; after his age-35 season, it had declined to 137.5. Between ages 30-35, it was 120.2. May’s career contact score through age 29 was 172.1; after his age-36 season, it had declined to 150.3. Between ages 30-36, it was 131.1. In each case, there was a substantial decline in contact authority from age 30 onward.

Davis’ career contact score through age 29 is 191.6, better than any of these comps. He’s posted single season contact scores as high as 249 (in 2013) and 213 (in 2015). Among his comps, both Williams (peak contact score of 214) and May (205) have tasted that rarified air. From age 30 forward? May posted a high of 159, and Williams of 156, both at age 30. Of the other 15 seasons as regulars the three compiled after age 29, only three had contact scores of 130 or higher.

A contact score of 130 would be deadly to Davis. Why? Let’s examine the second thing that happened to these players after age 29. Their strikeout and walk (K/BB) profiles deteriorated. In all three cases, the player’s K rate did not decline after age 29. Bell’s remained fairly level, usually around a half STD lower than average. Williams’ also remained fairly level, in the league average range. May’s went from over one STD higher than average, to over two STD higher than average. Davis’ K rate is currently over one STD above league average. It should not be expected to get better, and that inability to make contact cuts deeply into a contact score.

Similarly, none of these players’ BB rates moved in the right direction after age 29. Bell’s was over one STD lower than average both before and after age 29, Williams’ went from the league average range to over one STD lower than average, and May’s went from the league average range to over a half standard deviation below league average. Davis’ current BB rate is quite high, over one STD above league average; it basically has nowhere to go but down.

Offensively, I believe Davis to be somewhat better than these players. Their longevity suggests that he’ll remain active through even a fairly long free agent contract. Still, the dramatic, OBP-based declines suffered by these similar players cannot be ignored. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that, by far, Davis’ best days are behind him.

You want to pinpoint a player who is truly comparable to Chris Davis? Try these brief scouting reports on for size:

CHRIS DAVIS

– Left-handed, power-hitting first baseman
– K rate near top of scale (95th-97th percentile from 2012-15)
– Extreme fly-ball hitter (99th percentile in 2013, 96th percentile in 2015) w/opposite field power
– Extreme pull hitter overall, especially on ground, very low production on grounders, overshifted regularly
– Low pop-up rate for a power hitter
– Comps suggest declining BIP authority and BB rate after age 30.

PLAYER A

– Left-handed, power-hitting first baseman
– K rate near top of scale (92nd-98th percentile from 2008-15)
– Extreme fly-ball hitter (84th-94th percentile from 2008-15), w/opposite field power, even to this day
– Extreme pull hitter overall, especially on ground, very low production on grounders, overshifted regularly
– Low pop-up rate for a power hitter
– Contact Score to Age 29 = 219.5; Contact Score to Age 35 = 187.2; Contact Score Age 30-35 = 145.7
– BB rate over one-half STD above average at age 29, over one-half STD below average at age 35.

Player A, if you haven’t already guessed, is Ryan Howard. Chris Davis is Ryan Howard. Howard remained a decent offensive player at ages 30-31, with contact scores of 170 and 166; however, his poor K rate cut those to OPS+ figures of 128 and 125. Davis, on the positive side, might have a couple more years like that in him, before his continuing sub-.100 average on grounders and declining dominance in the air combine to undercut him.

The O’s extension of a seven year, $150-plus million offer to Davis likely has put a damper on the free agent position player market. Cespedes and Upton likely (and rightly) see themselves as better investments than Davis and, for a while at least, considered that as the floor of their respective markets. Gordon, at his age, with less power upside, probably didn’t go quite that far, but still likely thought his market was in the five year, $100 million range given that offer to Davis.

None of this has come to pass, obviously, and players and clubs have needed to retrench and reassess the position player market. Only in recent hours have rumors begun to again percolate regarding some of these players. It remains to be seen whether the O’s offer to Davis will be re-extended. If I were advising Chris Davis, however, I would urge him to take it, posthaste, if it were.

We hoped you liked reading Chris Davis and the Free Agent Bottleneck by Tony Blengino!

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southie
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southie

Having to log in to comment sort of sucks…

apbadogs
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apbadogs

You did it though.

Curious Gorge
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Curious Gorge

Being a Millenial must be hard… you know, actually having to do things, and stuff…

davedsg
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davedsg

Give me convenience or give me death!

Owen Poindexter
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I can’t wait for the next generation to have a widely used name so that I can grump them on the internet!

Curious Gorge
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Curious Gorge

So yeah, that blog you’re linking to… one article in 2015, two in 2014… kinda proving my point…