After his massive breakout in 2013 with 53 homers and a wRC+ of 168, Chris Davis fell off a cliff in 2014, posting a wRC+ of 94. Along with his suspension at the end of the season due to the use of amphetamines, the 2014 season represented a huge disappointment for Davis on the field. With his upcoming free agency at the end of the season, Davis has regained his power stroke this season. However, taking a deeper look at how Davis is achieving his 121 wRC+ reveals some troubling signs about the sustainability of his performance.
The first sign is his massive strikeout rate. It is difficult to overlook how often Davis has struck out this season. Just to illustrate this point, Davis has only had 6 games without a strikeout this season, compared to 7 games where he has struck out three times or more. For the season, he has a strikeout rate of 40.3%, the highest figure among qualified batters. Davis has always been a power guy who strikes out a lot, but even his career strikeout rate of 31.4% would represent a significant improvement over his current season.
Another warning sign is his decline in walk rate. For the last two seasons, Davis had a walk rate above 10%. This season, he has only walked 7.3% of the time. Some of the difference can be explained by the drop in intentional walks, as he has yet to get a free base on purpose this season. Still, the drop in walks is concerning.
So how has Davis sustained his production despite his strikeouts and his lack of walks? He has regained his power stroke with an ISO of .261 and maintained a high BABIP of .345. The BABIP doesn't really worry me too much, as Davis has always had a high BABIP over his career outside of the anomalous 2014 season when he posted a BABIP of .242. The newly available batted ball data on Fangraphs also signal a high BABIP. Only 4.8% of his batted balls this season have been classified as softly hit, a career low. On the other hand, a career high 41.3% of his batted balls have been classified as hard hit. For reference, 18.6% of all batted balls are classified as softly hit and 28.6% as hard hit in the league.
I am much more worried about his power production. His ISO of .261, while a far cry from his 2013 season, still represents the third highest ISO (barely behind his rookie season with an ISO of .264) in his career. However, he has hit more groundballs this season than his recent seasons, which should lead to lower power output. One key factor behind Davis's 2013 season was his aversion to groundballs. 32.4% of his batted balls were on the ground in 2013, compared to 38.1% in 2015. Less groundballs represents more opportunity for extra-base hits. It is difficult to believe that Davis has more homeruns per fly ball this season than 2013. That's the benefit of hitting less groundballs. Once Davis's homerun rate drops to a lower level, it would be hard for Davis to maintain his ISO with his current batted ball profile.
Chris Davis has bounced back to a certain extent this season. His high strikeout rate and low walk rate worry me about the sustainability of his performance. However, there is indication that he has actually hit the ball hard this season, which might be the reason behind his high BABIP and high ISO. It might not be difficult for Davis to maintain his current production, but he will never be able to replicate his 2013 season when he was among the best hitters in the league without cutting down on his strikeouts and getting a free base more frequently.
All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.