Chris Davis: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?

According to our end of season valuations, Chris Davis was not only the most valuable first baseman but also the most valuable player in the game. And that’s just based on production. When you consider his draft day price and ADP, he’s probably one of the greatest values in the history of fantasy baseball. It’s obvious he won’t be able to repeat the draft day value, but if he is going to live up to his draft day value next year, he’ll have to produce similarly. Can he?

There are really only two factors to consider when evaluating Davis’ ability to repeat, his power and his walk rate. The power led to 53 homers and 138 RBI while the improved walk rate got him a .286 average and an OBP that jumped up to .370 from .326 the previous year.

Of the two the power is the one you’d expect to be more repeatable because we always knew he had it. But no one could have predicted 50 home runs. How did he go from hitting a home run once every 24 or so plate appearances to one every 17 plate appearances? Simple. He hit the ball in the air more frequently and hit it farther. His fly ball rate jumped from the mid-thirties to the mid-forties, and his average home run and fly ball distance increased from 297 feet in 2012 to 308 feet this year, which was the 8th best distance in the league. As you can see below, the increase in fly balls came from Davis getting more soft stuff up in the air.

Average home run and fly ball distance has some year-to-year correlation (r-squared of .423), so I wouldn’t be surprised if Davis maintains some of the gains he made in batted ball distance on balls in the air. But I’m just concerned he’s not going to put as many balls in the air. As noted, the increase in FB% came on offspeed and breaking pitches, but most of that increase occurred early in the year. Here’s a chart showing what his flyballs per ball in play looked like on different pitch types from month to month.

My best guess is that he keeps the average home run and flyball distance comfortably above 300 feet, but his flyball rate ends up somewhere in the high-thirties or low-forties. If that’s the case, Davis ending up with something more like 40 home runs seems about the stick. Steamer’s projection of about 39 bombs feels about right.

As for the plate discipline, Davis’ epic contact and strikeout problems remain, but he displayed much more patience this year. His swing percentage dropped noticeably both on pitches in and out of the zone. And as the charts below show, he was able to lay off more hard and offspeed pitches than he had in past years, and he was able to lay off more breaking pitches as 2013 wore on.

davis 1

davis 2

I’ll admit that when I started writing this I was expecting to find some bad plate discipline numbers that would convince me that Davis will be over-drafted next year. And I thought I had found that when I took a look at his splits and saw his walk rate go from double digits in April and May to 5-7% in June and July. But then it rebounded in the last two months of the season.

Considering he was more patient with fastballs and offspeed stuff than he had been previously and that he really laid off the breaking stuff more later in the second half, I’m convinced that he’s going to continue to swing less. He’s still going to swing and miss a lot, but as long as he swings less, the average, OBP and runs total should be relatively similar to what they were last year.

So let’s assume these conclusions about the power and plate discipline are correct. The power comes back to earth a bit and is merely elite, not supernatural. The plate discipline remains improved but that assumption comes with some risk given Davis’ long history of striking out too much and walking too little. Where does that leave us on draft day next year? I asked my Twitter followers and everyone seemed to be in agreement that late first/early second seemed about right, somewhere in the 8-15 range. I agree with that range, and it projects as a step back but only a small one.

I was always out on Chris Davis. I decided it wasn’t happening in 2009. Last year was more shocking to me than anyone. And so I still can’t totally believe it. If I was picking early in the first and Davis happened to fall to me on the comeback in the 2nd/3rd, I’d be fine with him there, but he’s going to be long gone before that point. The evidence is there to believe in him, but I just can’t bring myself to believe.

Thanks to for all the charts and data.

The title of this post reminded me, as so many things do, of Peter Griffin.

We hoped you liked reading Chris Davis: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back? by Brett Talley!

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Great read, I love me some graphs in my NotGraphs articles.

pirates hurdles
pirates hurdles

This is a rotograph article.

As for the authors comment regarding Davis being “he’s probably one of the greatest values in the history of fantasy baseball”

Sure “one of”, but Davis likely went for around $10 in auctions this past spring. Joey Bats was a $1 guy at best coming into 2010. Heck even Trout coming into 2012 was probably a similar bargain to Davis after his poor debut.

Chicago Mark
Chicago Mark

Pirate, you agree with the writers statement then seemingly try to disprove or marginalize it. I’m not certain what you’re trying to say. In the end, Davis was “probably one of the greatest values in the history of fantasy baseball”.