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Chris Davis hit a ton of homers yet also had worrisome struggles

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Chris Davis signed an Orioles record seven year $161 million deal this off season to stay with the team. In 2016, he was good, not great. The burning question will be whether it was because of injury or part of a more troubling trend.

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

One of the main story lines heading into the season was Chris Davis. After a protracted negotiation process he eventually signed a massive seven year $161 million dollars. That deal was immediately ridiculed. Even before news came about the deferrals in the deal which made the pill easier to swallow (you can read my thoughts on that here).

After the internet quieted down a bit to let some of the details trickle out, the deal was still criticized. Paying an over 30 first baseman with contact issues at the plate is rarely a sound investment. “Just look at Ryan Howard,” as the refrain goes. In his first year coming off a big contract, Davis gave a disappointing yet not all that bad performance in 2016.

Starting at the top. Davis accumulated 2.7 fWAR and 3.0 bWAR in 2017. He hit .221/.332/.459 with 38 home runs, 21 doubles, and 84 RBI. Good for a 111 wRC+. He played in 157 games, 152 at first base, 3 in right field, and 2 at designated hitter.

All the promises made in the off season to keep Davis at first base rang true. Among the 23 qualified first baseman, with his 2.7 fWAR, Davis ranked 11th in baseball and 4th in the American league.

All in all, pretty good, but not great. Especially coming off the heels of 5.6 fWAR campaign in 2015 and the masterful and monstrous 7.0 WAR 2013 season (What’s that? 2014? That little guy? Don’t worry about that little guy). The other oddity is that a 111 wRC+ is Davis’ second worst as an Oriole.

Yet, 2016 was his third best season as an Oriole. Funny enough, the driver behind that was good defense and great base running. Davis was far and away the Orioles best base runner in 2016 according to Fangraphs base running runs metric.

For some context, Davis ranked third among qualified first baseman behind only Wil Myers (who is really an outfielder) and Paul Goldschmidt (who is a deity ). Also, Davis was the sixth best rated defensive first baseman in 2016. It’s not just the bat, the glove and feet play as well.

However, the bat is why Davis got paid and the bat was why everyone shuddered in fear of the giant seven year contract. The first couple of things that stand out at the plate for Davis is that he struck out 32.9 percent of the time, his highest since 2014 and walked 13.2 percent of the time which is a career best. Davis also had his lowest BABIP since 2014 (damn that year) at .279. His career BABIP is .314 and it was .319 in 2015. Not much in there. We need to go deeper.

As for batted ball data, Davis has a career low line drive rate and a his highest ground ball rate since 2012. He also posted his highest infield fly ball rate since his 2010 season with the Rangers. He had his highest rate of soft contact as an Oriole. All of that would indicate poor things for Davis. Davis needs to hit fly balls and line drives and they need to be hit hard. There’s some answers in there, but we still need to dig deeper.

The plate discipline data tells the rest of the story. Davis swung less in 2016 than ever before in his career. He swung at only 42.8 percent of the pitches he saw. His career rate is 49.4 percent. In 2015 he swung at 47.5 percent of pitches. He simply swung way less often in 2016. His contact rate was also lower. He made contact on only 65.7 percent of the pitches he swung, down from 66.9 percent in 2015 and a 67.7 percent career rate.

The answer comes down to this. Davis swung less, struck out more, hit the ball on the ground more often, hit the ball softer, and made less contact when he did manage to swing. The question then becomes why did Davis do all of this. There are two possible explanations. One, the impeding decline of the poor contact first baseman has arrived and Davis is doomed to mediocrity forever. Two, his hand injury.

I managed to write 700 words without getting to the obvious. Davis apparently hurt his left hand at some point during the season. The Orioles were sketchy with details. Apparently, it was an injury that was only going to get better with extended rest and the Orioles/Davis did not want that. This injury flared up when he swung the bat. That’s right, when he swung his top hand on the bat hurt.

This is perhaps most noticed in a stat that I have hidden from you until just now. Davis pulled the ball only 41.7 percent of the time. That is the lowest rate in his Orioles career. I wrote a while back about why Davis needs to pull the ball more. All in all, in 2016 Davis pulled the ball less, swung less, struck out more, walked more, and hit the ball softer. All of this is bad and almost all of it can be explained that his hand hurt when he swung. Sometimes, baseball is easy to explain.