Ten Plays That Changed the Way We Think About Rajai Davis

Ten plays. Ten plays can change a player’s career.

We talk all the time about how defensive numbers come in small samples. For an outfielder, the sample of plays that actually separate a good from a bad defender is even smaller.

In most cases, a batted ball to the outfield is either a can of corn or a clear hit. In between, there just aren’t many opportunities. For Rajai Davis as a center fielder, there are 19 plays that could have gone either way over the last two years. He missed 10 of them — which is bad — and then many of us stopped considering him as a center fielder. Ten plays!

It’s not just Davis who’s held to this type of standard, either. Kevin Pillar is amazing by any test, but check out how few of his chances in the last two years have come in those middle two bands that separate the good from the great. Take a few of those dots out and we think of him differently, maybe.

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Here’s another way of saying it. Let’s take the Inside Edge numbers and ignore the 90-100% plays (routine) and the 0-10% ones (rare). In that large middle band, the 10-90%, we can examine where Davis ranks against center fielders who’ve played 500 innings over the last two years. The result: 39th. Woof. Rather than show all of the top 40, let’s focus in on the 10 guys around him.

Rajai Davis Among His Defensive Comps
Rank Name Inn Opportunities 10-90%
34 Angel Pagan 1097.1 24 50.0%
35 Randal Grichuk 1231.1 28 50.0%
36 Ian Desmond 1109.0 18 50.0%
37 Andrew McCutchen 2692.2 57 49.1%
38 Leonys Martin 1948.1 45 48.8%
39 Rajai Davis 922.1 21 47.4%
40 Peter Bourjos 529.1 11 44.4%
41 Jarrod Dyson 713.2 11 44.4%
42 Will Venable 504.0 17 41.7%
43 J.B. Shuck 567.2 24 41.2%
SOURCE: Inside Edge
10-90% = % of Inside Edge plays made that were deemed makeable 10-90% of the time
Plays Missed = raw number of plays missed in that band

This supports the idea that Davis is maybe not a center fielder — or at least not a great one. There are formerly good center fielders here, center fielders who have had bad years and may be moving positions soon, guys that were never good center fielders, and Jarrod Dyson.

If I had a 36-year-old with these sort of comps defensively, I might not want to play him in center like the Athletics are planning on doing. There are only 34 players in the history of baseball who have played more than 75% of their innings in center at that age and racked up at least 100 games. Only 15 since free agency began, only nine this century. But, hey, Steve Finley did it six times, so we have a patron saint.

Still… you have to look back at that list and see how razor thin the margins are. Ten missed plays for Davis and he’s here. Take two of those missed plays away, and Davis would rank 25th, ahead of Keon Broxton and Odubel Herrera and behind Michael Taylor and Billy Burns. Much better company. Those dudes could be your center fielder.

Speaking of Herrera, let’s give those 10 missed plays the Herrera treatment and see how legit they were. Below are the plays with the batter and date listed, with an extra bonus of what the home announcers said about the play. Ten missed plays, and four of them came on two days… imagine if he’d sat those days, or the sun was in a different spot.

1. Rajai Davis vs Jose Abreu (4/18/15)

The Call: “Rajai late jump on it… Rajai Davis will be the first to tell you he should have made that play but he gets fooled on the swing.”

*****

2. Rajai Davis vs Adam LaRoche (6/25/15)

The Call: “Wonder if the sky is affecting him.”

*****

3. Rajai Davis vs Sean Rodriguez (6/30/15)

The Call: “Took a pretty good route, just could not make the play.”

*****

4. Rajai Davis vs Josh Harrison (6/30/15)

The Call: “Nearly a great catch by Rajai, in the glove and out of the glove.”

*****

5. Rajai Davis vs Mike Zunino (7/20/15)

The Call: “Couldn’t run it down all the way at the 420 marker.”

*****

6. Rajai Davis vs Curtis Granderson (4/17/16)

The Call: “Rajai fighting the sun, he was running it right into the sun, nothing he could do about that.”

*****

7. Rajai Davis vs Yoenis Cespedes (4/17/16)

The Call: “He never sees it, what are you going to do, get darker glasses or…”

*****

8. Rajai Davis vs Nick Castellanos (5/5/16)

The Call: “A short hop that just gets in front of him.”

*****

9. Rajai Davis vs Jarrod Dyson (7/19/16)

The Call: “Rajai Davis, on contact, froze. One little hesitation from Davis, but that’s a tough play for any center fielder.”

*****

10. Rajai Davis vs Melky Cabrera (9/13/16)

The Call: “Davis was running, trying to get there… it was a good effort but he couldn’t get there.”

*****

You can’t really take those two sun plays away from the ledger, but do they say a ton about his ability to play center field? Seems like either an equipment malfunction, or just a really bad couple of innings one day when the sun was super bright. Those two plays against the Pirates in 2015 came in the 13th and 14th innings and came after a couple of made plays that included long runs. Maybe there was some fatigue factor for him, or maybe they weren’t as makeable as they might appear.

In short, I’m not sure that these plays make him a bad center fielder. There are maybe two or three bad first steps here. Two or three! And we don’t really know exactly how hard these plays were. Once again, though, we have the help of Statcast which measured the hang time and distance traveled on these plays. And we can put the 2016 plays on the same grid which helps us understand exactly how often those sorts of plays were made.
Voila:

davisfielding
League catch percentage shown through lens of outfielder distance traveled in feet (x) and fly ball hang time (y) with Davis’ 2016 plays labeled.

So you’ve got the two plays he should have made in the sun, and then three 50/50 balls that are truly 50/50 balls. He made plays on them, but came up short. What can you do other than get there and hope the ball hits the right part of the glove.

Rajai Davis makes the routine plays most of the time. If you take two sun-blinded balls off his ledger, he’s a top-30 center fielder on the in-between balls over the last two years. Sometimes he makes those 50/50 plays, sometimes he doesn’t. The only worry going forward is that a faulty first step pairs with declining wheels and makes him unplayable there.

For the last two years at least, though, Rajai Davis has been a passable center fielder. It looks like the Athletics will be the only team to ever give him more than 100 games at the position — now for the second time, eight years later — and with good reason.





With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Ernie Camachomember
5 years ago

Yeah, but that home run was pretty awesome.

Garys of Oldemember
5 years ago
Reply to  Ernie Camacho

This is true, but his arm may have cost Cleveland a run or two that game as well.

broda
5 years ago
Reply to  Garys of Olde

At least 2 runs. Plus the effects to kluber of having to throw to another 2 or 3 batters before the Baez homer.