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Looking for signs of improvement from Chris Davis

There are some positives to be found in Davis’ slash line, plate discipline, and hard hit rate compared to league average. But he strikes out far too much for those to matter.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Davis is the owner of the largest contract in Baltimore Orioles history. Baseball Reference rates his WAR as -0.7 this season. The O’s are paying Davis $17M this season to be a below average player. Not good. The analysis of Chris Davis could end right there.

But it’s fun trying to find seek out some positives with these 2019 Orioles. When Mike Elias was introduced as General Manager in November, he was asked about Davis, who was coming off a disastrous 2018 season where he slashed .168/.243/.296 with 16 home runs. He said: “To me, this lineup is at its best with a productive Chris Davis, a dangerous Davis in the middle of the lineup. I want to see that happen. He had a frustrating campaign this year. I think the chances are good of him bouncing back and improving upon that. I’m going to get involved in the work he’s doing this offseason. Any new ideas that we can provide to him to help him out, we’ll do our best to do that.” That’s about as positively as you can speak about a player coming off a -2.8 WAR season.

It is unclear if Davis is utilizing any new ideas or information that wasn’t accessible to him under the last regime. It is clear that Davis is not, to use Elias’ word, dangerous. But has Davis shown any signs of improvement over last year?

Let’s start with a look at some basic statistics. In 72 games this season, Davis has registered a slash line of .191/.271/.321. While far from impressive or even adequate, those numbers represent increases of 23, 28, and 25 points respectively over last season. The counting stats are not easily comparable to recent seasons because of the decrease in playing time Davis has seen. In 2017 and 2018, he appeared in 128 games, or 79% of a full 162 game season. This season, he has appeared in 72% of Baltimore’s 100 games. His seven home runs in 240 plate appearances is at a rate nearly identical to that of last season.

A look at Davis’ Statcast data from Baseball Savant shines a light on how he has trended in the past five seasons and can partially explain his primary statistics this season. Statcast data was first recorded in 2015, which happens to be the season before Davis signed the largest contract in Orioles history. In that season, Davis barreled 17% of his batted balls, placing him in the top 1% of the league. His 91.8 MPH exit velocity placed him in the top 6%. His hard hit percentage of 46.2% rated him in the top 5 percent. In short, Chris Davis was hitting batted balls extremely hard during the 2015 season. It translated to his stats- he led the MLB with 47 homers and posted an OPS of .923.

Of course, Davis also struck out in 208 of his 670 plate appearances that season. That K rate of 31% put him in the bottom 2% of the majors. But it was balanced out by a healthy 12.5% walk rate. Davis hit for power, struck out a lot, and drew lots of walks. And was rewarded with $161M!

It should come as no surprise that Davis’ Statcast data points have declined since those 2015 figures. The decline has been, for the most part, very steady. His exit velocity average has fallen each season to 88.5 MPH this season (from 91.8 MPH). His barrel percentage fell from 17% to 9.7%. His hard hit percentage is actually up from last year by a fraction of a percent to 40.3%, but well below the 46.2% of 2015.

What I found interesting is that all of those 2019 metrics are actually above league average. According to barrel percentage, average exit velocity, and hard hit percentage, Chris Davis is hitting the baseball harder than the average MLB player. His launch angle, while also below 2015 level, is also above average.

If Davis is hitting the ball harder than the average major leaguer, what can explain his slash line being well below the league average of .252/.322/.433? It seems to be the strikeouts. Even in his MVP-caliber 2013 season, Davis struck out 199 times. He led the league in K’s in 2015 and 2016 and would have shattered those marks in 2017 and 2018 had his playing time not have reduced. The problem has worsened this season. Davis’ K% is currently at an unsightly 38.1%. He is simply not putting the ball in play enough.

There are some positives to be found in the 2019 Statcast data. Davis is making contact on pitches in the strike zone at a rate of 5.5% higher than 2018 (78.8% to 73.3%). Whether intentional or not, Davis is pulling pitches at a rate lower than in any season since 2015 (36.3%). 41.1% of his batted balls are being taken back up the middle, the highest rate on record. It’s possible that these results have come from a change in approach at the plate. (Are you listening, Jim Palmer?!)

Another positive is that Davis seems to be a little more selective at the plate. While still down from his most productive seasons, Davis is walking at a higher rate this season than he did in 2018. The data tells us that he’s swinging at less pitches overall, chasing fewer pitches out of the zone, and swinging at far fewer first pitches.

I looked into this data with the hope of finding something, anything, positive in Davis’ body of work this season. With a new coaching staff, new front office, and new access to information, perhaps there would be underlying signs of encouragement. While his slash line has increased modestly, there’s nothing to get excited about here. It’s great that he’s being more selective at the plate and that he is hitting the ball slightly harder than league average. But he needs to hit the ball MUCH harder than league average to make up for striking out in nearly four out of every ten plate appearances. And the metrics that measure how hard he’s hitting the ball have been falling since 2015.

The middle of this season marked the half-way point of Davis’ contract. He is getting most of the starts against right-handed pitchers and the club is giving him every opportunity to right his career. Unfortunately, signs of that are not to be found, no matter how hard you look.

Chris Davis’ Statcast from Baseball Savant can be found here. Share any trends or anything else worthwhile you see in the comments section.