How Matt Davidson Became the Most Improved Hitter in Baseball

CLEVELAND — Major-league pitchers threw Matt Davidson 1,855 pitches last season. Of those, 1,014 were thrown outside the confines of the strike zone, according to pitching-tracking data. Davidson swung at 343 of those out-of-zone pitches.

When he went home to his native Southern California this past winter, Davidson didn’t try to forget about baseball or an unimpressive 2017 campaign that included a .220/.260/.452 slash line and 83 wRC+. Rather, he relived his entire season.

Like every major-league player, Davidson has access to an incredible trove of video. On his iPad he could watch every pitch from his 2017 season and he did. Over the course of several days last October, he watched every pitch from his 2017 season — the video edited to erase the dead time between tosses. He was particularly interested in those 1,014 pitches thrown out of the zone against him and how he reacted.

“I looked at all my at-bats last year and kind of realized that there were so many pitches that I had no business in swinging at,” Davidson told FanGraphs. “I’m fine getting beat in the zone. I’ll swing and miss at a pitch that’s in the strike zone. But if a ball is out of the zone, I don’t want to swing at that. I’ve taken some called first strikes that are maybe borderline balls. I would rather do that than swing at a ball out of the zone. That has kind of been my focus.”

Jeff Sullivan wrote about how Davidson was one of the — if not the — most improved hitter in baseball earlier this month. That label is tied largely to gains made in plate discipline. Davidson, who should return from the DL soon, has gone from ranking 153rd in out-of-zone swing rate (33.8%) last season to 18th (21.5%) this season.

Wrote Jeff:

It’s easy to understand what’s going on, but it’s hard for any hitter to actually pull off. What’s one of the first rules anyone ever learns about hitting? Swing at strikes, and not at balls. That’s just Baseball 101. What we know is that major-league pitchers are absurdly talented, and they’re good at getting hitters to chase. If it were that easy to lay off of balls, more hitters would take more balls.

While pitchers keep throwing harder and filthier breaking pitches, while plate discipline is thought largely to be an innate skill — difficult to improve — Davidson is living proof that it can be done and in short order. That’s interesting. So with the White Sox in Cleveland, this intrepid reporter approached Davidson’s space in the visiting clubhouse and asked for his secrets, to explore how exactly he was doing this.

Swing at good pitches, don’t swing at bad pitches. Sounds simple. Davidson knew the numbers, that he hit .111 against pitches out of the strike zone last season and slugged .171 against them. On pitches in the strike zone? He hit .275 and slugged .629. He cited how he had a much better walk rate in the minors than his 4.3% rate last season. (His walk rate has spiked to 15.8% early this season.) Davidson knew the results, but he had to better understand what was going wrong with his process, his approach. Davidson said that, as he watched his chase swings from his offseason home, he tried to recall what he was feeling and thinking in the batter’s box.

“What was the mentality I had?” Davidson said. “Did I feel like a pressure to get the guy in, or this or that, or that I had to swing?… I realized there were so many at-bats last year where I could have been standing on first, where I just swing myself out of it.”

Here’s what the change looks like visually on a pitch chart. First, Davidson against out-of-zone pitches in 2017 via GameDay data at Baseball Savant:

And this season:

Davidson’s overall swing percentage by zone last season:

And this season:

One finds less a less intense red just above the zone and more blue tones on the low and outside portion of it.

Davidson was able to diagnosis the issue, but he had to address the process. He found something in the video. To explain, Davidson stood before his locker and went into his stance with an imaginary bat in his hands before mimicking a swing. He went to his load and then triggered the movement in his swing going forward.

“Usually when the back heel comes up, that’s when you are deciding to swing or not,” Davidson said.

And what he noticed is that, when his back heel was coming up last season, it was often too late, the ball had traveled too far, too deep.

“So when you watch that and compare [the back heel] with where the ball is, where you are recognizing when to hit, I noticed that the ball was getting deep, a little too close to me, when I would be swinging at bad pitches,” Davidson said. “I am not making the decision when the ball is right out of the pitcher’s hand because then you are cheating, but I am trying to be closer to halfway when I make that decision. That’s when you are going to be able to see the spin.”

The following footage is of a swing and miss for a strikeout last season against a Michael Fulmer slider:

And a better result against another non-fastball down in the zone this season:

Davidson does indeed appear to be beginning the trigger phase of swing sooner.

Compare a still from the 2017 swing…

… to one from 2018:

Interestingly, Carlos Santana — well known for his excellent discernment of the strike zone — articulated how he employs a similar recognition point in a piece I wrote for The Athletic last summer.

“A lot of it is eyes, but a lot of it is allowing your body to get in position soon enough to let your eyes work,” Davidson said. “If your body is not in that position early enough, then your eyes are not going to work.”

Davidson needed a way to create more consistent timing, to consistently begin his swing earlier. Over the winter, he made the short trip to Arizona to work with White Sox minor-league hitting coordinator Mike Gellinger at the club’s facility in Phoenix. Davidson discussed his findings, and Gelligner suggested an unusual timing mechanism. While a number of hitters have turned to leg kicks as timing mechanisms, when Davidson reaches the on-deck circles he creates a count in his head, “1… 2… 3,” a clock, to sync up with the pitcher’s delivery.

“Before, I tried to do [timing] in rhythm… I would just kind of look and do it,” Davidson said of timing. “But some pitchers are longer, some are shorter [to the plate]… Now I have a timing thing that I am able to use to get to my read point consistently. If I’m late on a pitch, I know I need to start that timing mechanism earlier. I feel like I am in a better position to see the where the ball is. On deck, I’ll find the [count]. Every pitcher is a little different. Some guys are really quick, where I will almost have to skip a spot… It’s been a huge help for me.”

Davidson has a 143 wRC+ at the moment and has been worth 1.2 WAR after recording a -0.9 mark last season. He’s on the 10-day DL with back spasms, but it is not thought to be a long-term issue. He should be back soon and we’ll see if he can continue his torrid start.

“Hitting is timing,” Davidson said. “Last year I struggled a lot with timing. I knew that was happening; I just didn’t know how to get to that spot… [T]hat timing mechanism really helped me to do that, to get that every single [time]. When you are going good, you are seeing it good. How can I manipulate myself to get to that spot every time?”

It appears Davidson has found a way.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

Javy Baez needs an iPad.