Understanding Chris Davis's breakout year

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Davis finished 2012 hot and continued producing this year, amassing a stunning .301/.384/.672 (179 wRC+) line and accumulating 6.4 WAR so far. He's vaulted from power prospect into fringe MVP candidate. What's behind the boost?

Let me begin by saying that we don't actually know all that much about Chris Davis. We'd like to think he's the second coming of Ted Williams, but Davis was in the minors for nearly as long as he's been in the majors: a little over three years. We don't have enough data to establish a long track record for him. So take this article with a big grain of salt. All stats are prior to Saturday's game.

A bit of luck

Davis benefitted from some luck to start the season. In April and May, his K rate was 22%, about 8% below his career norm. Additionally, his BABIP for these months was in the stratosphere: .392. BABIPs that high are generally reserved for contact hitters, which Davis is decidedly not. Some power hitters (Miguel Cabrera, etc.) can check in a tier below that, but nothing Davis has done to this point indicates he's at that level.

Don't believe me? As the season progressed, Davis struck out more frequently and fewer of his batted balls fell in for hits. In June and July, his strikeout rate shot back up to 37.5%. Notice how that is nearly 8% above his career norm? That is what regression to the mean looks like. His BABIP also dipped to its career level in June (.345) before swinging to downright unlucky in July (.279). As a result, his wRC+ dropped from 215 in April/May to 142 in June/July. That level of production is still great, but it's not April-May-2013 awesome.

Davis's skills showed through in August, however. With his K rate closer to his career levels (although still low) and his BABIP down to .321, he still had a fantastic month: 185 wRC+, 12th-best in the majors for that time period. This shows me he has enough talent to produce regardless of his luck. And it means that Davis's true offensive talent (this year, anyway) is somewhere between 142 and 185 wRC+. That's not elite, but it's superb.

I'm going to stop here to clarify something. Some people will read the above paragraphs and interpret that I think Davis is a crappy baseball player who is getting lucky. That's not the case. I think he's a highly-talented power hitter who also got very lucky in April, May, and most of June. Combine the talent with the luck in the first half and you get to the All Star game. Take away the luck and you still have a player who produces at a high level but who falls out of serious MVP consideration (at least as long as players like Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout are in the same league).

Let's put it this way: a lucky stretch will boost Chris Davis to 200 wRC+. A similar lucky stretch might boost someone like Nick Markakis to a 110 wRC+. You see the difference in base talent level here.

More fly balls and more home runs per fly ball

To further examine Chris's luck, we can look at how many of his fly balls leave the yard. His HR/FB rate in April and May was almost exactly 30%. This is very high, indicating luck, but it's not unprecedented, especially not in such a short time span. What's interesting is to note the drop-off in HR/FB% as the season has progressed. Since May it peaked at 37.5% in June, then dropped to 35% in July and was at 28% in August. Again, my point is that this level of production is very, very high. But you can see regression in action here as his luck evens out.

Where will it land? We don't know. Chris's career HR/FB% before this season was 15%, but that includes mostly partial seasons at the major-league level. Last year it was 25%; this year it's at 32%. In the past 20 years, only Ryan Howard has maintained an HR/FB% at that level for multiple years, which tells us this skill is rare but doable. It also tells us that we'd be foolish to bet on Davis maintaining this high rate.

But he doesn't have to. Even an HR/FB% of 25% is valuable. At that rate you see the careers of Barry Bonds, Giancarlo Stanton, and Pedro Alvarez. Between 25 and 20% you see names like Tony Clark, Adam Dunn, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Carlos Delgado, and Mark Reynolds. In the high teens you get players like Prince Fielder, Paul Goldschmidt, Larry Walker, Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez, Mike Trout, David Ortiz, and Albert Pujols. (You also get Michael Morse, whose career HR/FB rate is now relevant to the Orioles.) Of course, many of those players bring other skills - like high OBP or speed - to the table.

On top of his high HR/FB rate, Davis is also hitting more fly balls overall this year: 45%, compared to 37.5% last year. I don't suspect much luck here, however, because his FB% has been increasing since 2010, and FB% rates of around 44% occur far more often than HR/FB rates over 32% do. But the increase in fly ball rate is another reason Davis's HR total is approaching 50 instead of 40.

Increased patience

Shifting away from Chris's swing, let's talk about his plate discipline. Although his K rate this year has remained close to last year's, his BB rate has increased substantially, by about 4% since last year, to move from below-average to above-average. This is the mark of a skill increase: increasing performance overall despite the vagaries of luck throughout the season. Pitchers are obviously pitching around Davis this year, but it takes two to tango. Davis has to respond by letting those pitches go by, and so far in 2013, he has been good about doing so.

I haven't looked at the numbers, but I'd guess that since last year, Davis has decreased his strikeouts looking as opposed to his strikeouts swinging. His increased BB% tells me he's getting better at letting balls go by, but his overall K rate tells me he hasn't quite learned how to make contact more often when he does swing.

We will have to see whether Davis can maintain this walk rate going forward. But I have more hope for it than I do for, say, his K rate. The good news is that despite gaudy HR totals that make headlines on ESPN, OBP is worth more runs than SLG is.

An interlude for comparison

An interesting compare here is Miguel Cabrera. This year, Cabrera's put only 37.4% of balls in the air and only 29% of them go over the fence. How is it possible that he has nearly as many home runs as Davis? I think it's because he strikes out about half as often as Davis does, meaning he has more plate appearances overall that could end in a hit. Not only that, but during this season, Cabrera's K and HR/FB rates have been much more consistent than Davis's. Hence my judgement that Cabrera is more skilled than Davis is. After all, the mark of a skill is consistent achievement. And we have many more seasons of Cabrera's to judge from.

Room for Improvement

The talk about plate discipline leads me to the biggest hole in Davis's game, one that plagues most power hitters: strikeouts. It's easy to bellow "stop striking out so much!" But two factors are in play here. One, power hitters strike out pretty often; that's part of their game. Those who don't (Cabrera, pre-2012 Pujols, Votto, etc) are considered elite for a reason. Two, changing one aspect of your game without changing all the others is tough, maybe impossible. If you are unnaturally patient at the plate, you will likely miss balls you can drive. If you are unnaturally aggressive at the plate, you will make contact with balls you shouldn't. I suspect this is why the most frequently-repeated mantra in baseball is something like "stay within yourself" or "don't try to do too much."

There's a reason why defensive shifts work, and that's because it's impossible to consistently control where the ball lands once you hit it. If players could do that, everyone would bat .1000, and no one would shift against them. You can't simply "poke one through the left side" if you're not used to doing that (e.g, you are not an opposite-field contact hitter like Nick Markakis). You will end up hitting a weak grounder more often than not.

Anyway, I digress. But I will say that this is why I don't throw things at the TV anymore when Adam Jones strikes out with two runners on. You gotta take the bad with the good.

Another hole in Chris's game is his production against lefties. Davis has surprisingly high platoon splits this year: 112/216 wRC+ vs. lefties/righties. His walk rate vs. lefties is nearly a third of what it is against righties, but his K rate is about as high. Very interesting.

These numbers say to me that the O's are missing out on a lot of runs by starting Davis against left-handed pitching. Particularly since there is a clear option for a platoon partner: Danny Valencia has a 171 wRC+ vs. lefties this year. If you could simply swap one for the other, you are gaining some serious production.

Of course it may not be that simple. Davis might be so good because he gets so many reps per day and stays active by playing the field. Relegating him to a platoon starter might bruise his ego or confidence, causing his overall production to drop. You also don't know how Davis will perform as a pinch hitter. But from a purely theoretical standpoint, if you're Buck Showalter, don't you have to at least explore the possibility? Call the guys in your office to discuss it?

Chris Davis is awesome

Will Davis continue his monster 2013 into 2014 and beyond? Probably, but to a point. Davis has roughly 2/3 of a valuable power hitter's skillset -- the home runs and the strikeouts. If he can maintain or keep increasing his walk rate while maintaining his power, and if he stays healthy, he will be fine. We can probably expect 30+ HR seasons from him going forward, maybe closer to 40 HR a year for a little while since he is in his prime. Will he approach 50-60 HR again, though?

That depends how confident you are that his luck will continue. He has not proven that he can sustain an elite level of play when the luck fails him. Again, I don't mean to imply that he will crater to replacement-level when faced with bad luck, just that his production will drop from elite to the next tier below, maybe a bit below that, then rise again with his luck. Compare that with Cabrera, who has proved he has the skillset to hover around "elite" no matter the luck he receives. David could have this skillset; we don't know that yet.

But anytime someone seriously compares you to Miguel Cabrera, you are doing something right. The fact that Davis is 27 and under team control through 2016 only makes him worth that much more. Put it all together, and I'm extremely happy to have Davis on the team. I just want to be realistic going forward. Obviously we need to wait a couple more years to see whether Davis can maintain his success. The good news is we should know this information right around the time he is eligible for free agency. What great timing!

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