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Chris Davis isn’t pulling the ball as much this year

Chris Davis has done fine so far this year, if not as great as last year. One reason? He’s not pulling the ball as much.

Chris Davis was the news of the Orioles off season. His resigning went from a long shot to a certainty over the course of a couple months. His seven year $161 million deal is a franchise record. This inevitably led to lots of had wringing and spilled internet ink. I joined in the fun here.

Yet, as the 2016 season has progressed, Chris Davis has been on the back burner. Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Hyun Soo Kim, the rotation, and the bullpen—among other topics—have all taken precedent over Davis. So, I wanted to check in on him.

Davis has posted 2.5 WAR to date in 2016. A very solid number and well on his way to a four win season. Before yesterday’s game, he was hitting .239/.351/.497 with a 123 wRC+ with 22 home runs.

Again, a very solid line. Well worth the $17 million he is being paid in 2016. However, last season he hit .262/.361/.562 with 47 home runs and a 147 wRC+. In 2015, Davis had a 5.6 WAR season. While he has been plenty good in 2016, he was even better in 2015.

To understand differences between prior year Chris Davis and this year’s Chris Davis I first looked at how he was being pitched. Below is a heat map of how Davis has been pitched in his career.

As you can see, lots of focus low and away, and out of the zone away which makes sense as that is where most hitters struggle to make quality contact. Some focus up and in, but not a lot. Compare that to how he is being pitched in 2016.

A lot more up and in pitches which Davis can struggle with in particular when his swing gets elongated. Not to mention his natural uppercut which supplies much of his power also makes these pitches much harder to make quality contact on. So he is being pitched a little differently in 2016, but not much and again he has been pretty good so far in 2016.

I also wanted to look at where Davis has been crushing pitches and where he has been struggling. Below is a heat map of Davis’ isolated power numbers from 2015.

Clearly, a lot of red in there. He punished the ball wherever it was in the zone. That’s a good way to get to a 147 wRC+ and a 5.6 WAR. Now, for the isolated power heat map to date in 2016.

The corners have become much more of a liability for Davis as he has struggled to make solid contact down and away and up and in. Not so shocking, but still one reason why 2016 and not been as good as 2015.

One of the reasons Davis was so strong in 2015 is that he started to pull the ball in the air more. I wrote about that here. While teams already over shift on Davis, pulling the ball in the air can help in the power production department.

Davis does have tremendous opposite field power, but pulling the ball in the air is the easiest way to hit home runs and home runs are what drives a lot of Davis’ value. Below is Davis’ 2015 spray chart to illustrate how he pulled the ball in the air last season.

This spray chart has the hit types. In 2015, Davis pulled the ball quite regularly. Especially for home runs. Of his 47 2015 home runs, I count only 12 that are left of dead center field or about 25 percent.

This is backed up by some numbers. According to Fangraphs, Davis pulled 55.9 percent of the balls he put in play last year which is a career high for him. Now, for the 2016 spray chart.

On the home run front, Davis is back to using all fields. I count 10 of his 22 home runs as left of dead center field or about 45 percent of his home runs. This is also backed up by his batted ball numbers, Davis is only pulling 41.3 percent of his balls in play this year. That would be his lowest in a season since 2010. His career pull percentage is 45.9 percent.

Clearly, Davis has not been pulling the ball as much in 2016. In fact, much more of his balls are going to center field, 35.8 percent thus far in 2016 which would be a career high. Center field is the hardest part of the park to hit it out which saps Davis of his power.

Being a “pull happy hitter” is often seen as a bad thing, but again pulling the ball in the air tends to be very productive for power hitters. In 2015, on balls that he pulled Davis posted a 244 wRC+. In 2016, he is posting a 140 wRC+ on balls that he has pulled. For Davis, pulling the ball is big business.

Davis has not been a disappointment in 2016. He has been an above average hitter and has given the Orioles solid production at first base. However, the things that made him a better hitter in 2015 have not followed him to 2016. Not that he cannot get back to his pulling ways, but it is something to watch going forward this season and beyond.