J.D. Davis’ Changed Approach Could Turn Him Into a Big-Time Slugger

Through the Mets’ first nine games this season, J.D. Davis has 28 plate appearances. Jeff McNeil has 27. This, despite our playing time projections; we expected Davis to make just 67 trips to the plate all season. McNeil, on the other hand, was pegged for 509.

Davis, to say the least, has made the most of his early boon in playing time. He’s slashed .280/.357/.600, with two homers, three walks, and six strikeouts. He has also hit the ball incredibly hard. And, when I say incredibly hard, I really do mean it. Of Davis’ 17 batted balls, two have already left the bat at 108+ mph. Why is 108 mph a significant figure? Because, as Rob Arthur wrote in The Athletic in April 2018, “For every mile per hour above 108, a hitter is projected to gain about 6 points of OPS relative to their predicted number.” (Arthur looked at this correlation using a hitter’s projected OPS from PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’ player projection system.)

On Saturday, Davis hit this home run off of Patrick Corbin at a whopping 114.7 mph off the bat, the hardest hit ball he has hit all season:

Going off of Arthur’s findings, this would mean Davis could gain up to 40 points of OPS off of his projected value, which our Depth Chart projections have as .718. By no means would 40 “bonus” points take Davis into elite territory — it only ups his projected OPS to .758 — but having a max exit velocity of 114.7 mph this early in the season is clearly not a bad sign. In fact, it’s the third-highest max exit velocity of any hitter in the big leagues (minimum 10 batted ball events), behind only Aaron Judge (118.1 mph!) and Joey Gallo (115.4 mph). That is some pretty good company to be in. And perhaps it means that Davis could be tapping into new potential.

In 2018, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel graded Davis as having 70-grade raw power, with just 45-grade game power and 50-grade future game power, which would peg Davis for between 12-15 home runs per year, with the potential to top out at 15-18 homers. But maybe Davis is doing something different this year. From 2017 to 2018, he had 117 batted balls across 181 plate appearances with the Astros. Only six times (5.1% of batted ball events) did he ever hit the ball at or above 108 mph, compared to two in his short time with the Mets (11.8% of BBE). If we were to narrow the range to batted balls at or above 110 mph, we would find that two of his three batted balls at these speeds have come in his short time in New York.

Not all of this might be due to adjustments made by Davis alone. Into games on Sunday, the league-average hard-hit rate has already jumped by 1.3 percentage points from 2017 to 2018, going from 35.3% to 36.6%. Still, being able to hit the ball as hard as Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo doesn’t happen by accident or by any league-wide adjustments we might be seeing.

To detect a potential swing change, I took a quick look at two Davis plate appearances; the only difference I’m seeing is that he now wears a C-flap on his batting helmet.

Here’s a Davis swing from 2018:

And now, here’s one from 2019:

Davis himself hasn’t cited any swing changes as the reason for his newfound success; rather, he told Laura Albanese of Newsday that he has worked with new Mets hitting coach Chili Davis to develop a change of approach. In fact, as Anthony DiComo of MLB.com wrote on March 30, the Mets are preaching “a contact approach, which stands in contrast to the Mets’ swing-for-the-fences mantra during Sandy Alderson’s eight-year tenure as general manager.”

As DiComo writes:

This spring, with [Chili] Davis in the cage, the Mets placed a renewed prominence on situational hitting. They stressed the importance of going to the opposite field. They de-emphasized home runs. They even encouraged bunts to beat sizable defensive shifts, hoping opponents will dramatically reduce the amount they shift against the Mets.

For J.D. Davis, a “change of approach” might be hard to define statistically, especially with this small of a sample, but there some of his statistics indeed indicate that he has begun to subscribe to the philosophy of Chili Davis.

First and foremost, if a hitter has a better approach, they are probably benefiting from improved plate discipline. Davis struck out 49 times across his 181 trips to the plate with Houston, good for a 27.1% strikeout rate. So far in New York, he has just six strikeouts in 28 plate appearances, good for a 21.4% strikeout rate. He has dropped his swing rate on pitches outside the zone from 32.4% in 2018 to just 18.5% in 2019; this 13.1 percentage point drop is the 13th-best in baseball, across 469 hitters with at least 10 plate appearances this season and 100 total between 2018 and 2019.

Swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone has dropped Davis’ swinging-strike rate from 13.9% in 2018 (and 18.1% in 2017) to just 11.2% so far in 2019. This has moved Davis from being well worse than league-average in swinging strike rate to just about league-average. And with the power potential that we have seen so far this season, that is really big. Davis has made all of these changes whilst maintaining a contact rate of 75.5%, again right about league-average.

To sum up, so far this season, Davis is avoiding swings at poor, outside-the-zone pitches and instead focusing on driving the pitches he sees inside the zone. At least to me, that would definitely indicate a change in approach.

Does this mean that J.D. Davis could ever develop into a (dare I say it) Joey Gallo- or Aaron Judge-type of player? It’s definitely too soon to tell, but in the plate discipline department, there’s an argument to be made that at least some of Davis’ 2019 plate discipline numbers are better than the career averages of those two sluggers:

J.D. Davis’ Plate Discipline Matches Up Well
Player O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
J.D. Davis, 2019 18.5% 73.6% 45.8% 60.0% 79.5% 75.5% 11.2%
Gallo, Career 31.3% 74.8% 47.6% 44.1% 70.4% 59.6% 19.2%
Judge, Career 25.5% 65.2% 41.2% 43.3% 79.7% 66.1% 14.0%

It is hard to definitively say whether J.D. Davis is going to become baseball’s next big slugger; it is far too early for that. But with tangible changes to his approach this season, he’s made the most of his early playing time, hitting the ball just as hard as some of the game’s biggest power hitters. If things continues to click for the remainder of the 2019 season, National League pitchers need to be on high alert.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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Cave Dameron
4 years ago

Thank you Devin, very cool!

4 years ago
Reply to  Cave Dameron

You spelled his name wrong (hint: it’s at the top of the page).

Mario Mendozamember
4 years ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

Cave Dameron is allowed to do that