Roto Comeback Hitter Award

This is one of those fun awards where there is debate about what the award means. Roto and Hitter are clear, but what constitutes a comeback? Does the winner have to come back from injury or ineffectiveness or both? How good does he have to be to have “comeback?”

Well, since I get the only vote, I also define the parameters. I prefer unexpected comebacks, so I give more credit to coming back from ineffectiveness than injury. I think you need to make a BIG return to win this award – going from top 20 bat, to borderline useful player, to top 20 bat is more impressive than going from top 75 bat, to top 200 bat, to top 75 bat. With that in mind, my pick: Chris Davis.

In 2013, Crush burst onto the scene, smashing 53 HR and posting a .286/.370/.684 (.684!) line. He broke the 100 R (103) and RBI (138) barriers, and even tacked on four SB, settling in as the #2 fantasy bat (according to CBS’s rankings from that year) behind Miguel Cabrera.

But the fates were cruel to Davis and his owners in 2014. He barely cracked the top 200 in fantasy value, plummeting to an unacceptable .196/.300/.404 line, and dropping his HR (26), SB (2), and RBI (72) either in half or nearly in half. He fared slightly better in runs, but still scored only 65.

Those who stuck with Davis coming into 2015, though, were rewarded. He ended the season ranked 8th among fantasy bats, bringing his average (.262) and OBP (.361) back into the realm of reasonable and excellent, respectively. He approached the 50 HR mark again, depositing 47 balls into the seats, scored 100 R and knocked in 117 RBI. Sure, he only stole two bases again, but my guess is his owners didn’t miss the other two.

Other candidates for the award include Carlos Gonzalez, Kendrys Morales, Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, but they all have their flaws. Morales simply never touched the kind of fantasy value Davis put up this year or in 2013. ARod made a lot of noise, particularly early in the season, but eventually settled in as a borderline top 50 bat. Braun bounced back, but never fell as far as Davis.

Cargo is probably the next best candidate. As good as he was this year, he wasn’t as good as Davis in 2013 or 2015, though he was also much worse in 2015. The biggest difference, though is playing time. Gonzalez actually put up a very similar line to Davis in 2014, prorated down to the 281 PA he managed. Basically, while Cargo didn’t play well, his performance was attributed to injury and it showed in his draft day value, where he was coming off the board nearly 30 picks earlier than Davis. That’s enough to give Davis the nod.

So what can we make of Davis’s surge back to prominence and what it means for 2016? There are five things that seem to have contributed to his fall (and rise), three statistical, two anecdotal. First, the stats:

  • He traded fly balls for ground balls. In 2013 and 2015, Davis hit 45.7% and 43.5% FB, respectively. His GB rates those two years were 32.4% and 31.8%. In between, his FB% dropped to 40.9% and his GB% increased to 34.5%. His LD% actually went up from 2013 to 2014 (21.9% to 24.6%) and stayed up into 2015 (24.7%), but trading FB for GB doesn’t help a burly power bat like Davis. Fewer fly balls meas fewer HR and Davis makes his living with HR.
  • Fewer of those FB went for HR. His HR/FB rates in 2013 and 2015 were almost identical – 29.6% and 29.4%. In 2014, it was 22.6%. And there is a pretty simple explanation for this – he wasn’t hitting the ball as far. In 2013 and 2015, his FB+HR distances were 315.7 and 308.7 ft (2nd and 8th in MLB in those years). The down year? 298.0 feet. Still better than all but 20 MLB hitters, but a far cry from where he was and is. If fewer FB is bad for a power hitter, hitting those fewer FB less far is even worse.
  • His BABIP plummeted. Davis’s 2013 BABIP was .335, which seems high until you see he posted a .336 the year before and has a career rate of .320. This year, he was down from that peak, but still managed a roughly-career-average .319. In 2014, despite the increased LD%, his BABIP was .242. Lots of things can explain this – the lessened HR+FB distance and HR/FB rate means a lot more fly balls were caught by opponents than fans, which is bad for BABIP. He is slow, so those GB probably didn’t help much. His Hard Hit% also went down, which means everything was less likely to go for a hit. But maybe the best explanation for the outlier in a .336-.335-.242-.319 series is bad luck.

The question we are left with after looking at those first three explanations is why? Why should we believe weak, ground-ball-hitting Chris Davis won’t return? And that is where that fourth and fifth, anecdotal pieces of data come in:

  • Davis was busted in 2014 for use performance enhancing drugs, specifically getting suspended 25 games for amphetamines. The thing is, Davis had been using stimulants prior to 2014, but had a therapeutic use exemption, allowing him to use the drug without breaking MLB’s rules. It is possible – if not likely – that Davis was forced to curtail his use of Adderall (the drug he was busted for) during his down season.
  • Davis had an early 2014 DL stint for a strained oblique. This is the kind of injury that can linger, and Davis even said it bothered him most of the year. I imagine the combination of rehabbing a lingering injury while not having the energy you are used to could prove problematic.

Fast-forward to 2015, and other than serving the last game of his 25 game suspension on Opening Day, Davis was healthy and had his exemption back. He was, at least theoretically, using his prescription on a regular and typical cadence, and was clear of that pesky oblique injury. The results, as they say, speak for themselves.

For 2016, Davis should be lined up for another big year. Sure, he could get hurt again, but what I’d watch closer than his health (and medication exemptions) is his free agency. He has played his entire career in Texas and Baltimore, two parks that are near perfect fits for a slugging lefty like Davis. Sure, he could end up in Colorado or the Bronx, but neither is particularly likely and almost any other park he goes to will be a negative for his power numbers. As long as he avoids San Francisco (who has Brandon Belt at 1B and no DH), Miami (who has no money), or Oakland (see: Miami), he should be okay, but it’s worth watching his landing spot.

We hoped you liked reading Roto Comeback Hitter Award by Chad Young!

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Chad Young is a product manager at Amazon by day and a baseball writer (RotoGraphs, Let's Go Tribe), sports fan and digital enthusiast at all times. Follow him on Twitter @chadyoung.

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Votto not inckuded due to the injury