Will The Real Chris Davis Please Stand Up?

In 2008, Chris Davis exploded into the majors in a big way. After trolling through the minors with a .257+ ISO at every level of play, he smacked 17 HR in a mere 317 PA with a .285 Batting Average (AVG) and .264 ISO to boot. The strikeout rate was a bit high (29.8% in the majors that season), but acceptable for a power hitter like Davis -- especially given his prodigious line drive rate of 25.5%, a number which was top 10 amongst all major league hitters with 300 PA in 2008. Matched with a slightly below average, but acceptable 4.1 speed score, Davis seemed primed for a big season for Texas entering 2009. He had unquestionable power (40 HR between AA, AAA, and the majors in 2008) and the hitting abilities to sustain a quality batting average. This was especially important given the low walk rate (6.3% in 2008, MLB average was 8.7% that year).

Bill James pegged him for a monstrous 40 HR, .300 BA, 100+ R/RBI season. True, James is historically generous in his offensive predictions, but even by his standards, James was big on Davis. So were many fantasy owners; his MDC in early February 2009 over at MDC was top 70 and creeping up. Only one question lingered: what of the strikeout rate?

A 30% strikeout rate is clearly not desirable, but it is far from the end of the world. Other guys who struck out (much) more such as Justin Upton, Ryan Howard, Adam Dunn, and Carlos Pena all have managed to be valuable in both fantasy baseball and in real life. The strikeouts clearly limited Chris Davis' AVG upside, but much of this risk was mitigated by 1) a sweet swing and strong line drive talents and 2) a minor league strikeout rate of 24.3% through 1345 PA. At worse, a .250 AVG, a la Dunn or Pena, seemed to be the downside.

How wrong everyone was. Davis managed to disappoint in almost every way possible in his 2009 campaign. His strikeout rate was a toxic 38.4% (second only to Mark Reynolds), his ISO fell to .205 (still strong, just not as strong) and his AVG plummeted from .285 in 2008 to .238 in 2009. Most of the left handed hitters struggles came against lefties. Whereas Davis was able to hold his own against lefties in 2008 (.279 AVG, .314 ISO, 33.7% K), Davis was simply unable to hit them in 2009 (.189 AVG, .123 ISO, 40.2% K rate). His numbers against righties also took a sizable hit, but the .260 BA and .242 ISO against righties in 2009 were at least "acceptable" and within the foreseeable scope of Davis' risk when you drafted him. To make matters worse, Davis managed to do all of this with a .324 BABIP (.326 xBABIP).

Whereas many pegged Davis for a season of greatness (and paid a premium price for it), he barely managed to even get 417 PA of playing time. In no short sense of the term, Chris Davis burned many fantasy owners last year and he did it bad.

However, as I will outline below, there are reasons for hope. Chris Davis may be a, if not the, post-hype sleeper to own for 2010 and he's got a low enough ADP and a strong enough reverse brand name effect (see Liriano, Francisco) to deter people from drafting him too high (if at all) in 2010. What are these reasons for hope? Three words: decreased strikeout rate.

After posting a putrid 41.2% strikeout rate thru his first 277 PA, Davis was sent down to the minors to work on his plate approach. There, he managed to slice his strikeout rate to 23.6% over 194 PA and earn himself a mid-late August call up to the majors. Over those final 142 PA last season, Chris Davis only struck out 25.4% of the time. This, along with his strong line drive rate (over 22%), led to a .308 BA in his final 142 PA. He also smacked 6 HR to boot. This decreased propensity to strikeout has carried over to 2010. Through 51 spring PA, Chris Davis has only 12 strikeouts (23.5% K%) to his name. Yes, this is just spring training, but such is a very encouraging sign.

No one has ever doubted Chris Davis' power. Even last year, with a decreased ISO, he managed 27 between the majors and AAA. No one has likewise question his ability to hit when he makes contact. Even last year, Davis managed to post a 20.6% line drive rate, placing him in the quarter of all MLB hitters with 400+ PA. The only aspect of Davis' game which was ever in question was his propensity to swing (53.4% of the time vs the 45.2% MLB average) and miss (63.2% of the time vs the 80.5% MLB average). When you swing as much as Vladimir Guerrero but make contact like Carlos Pena, especially without the walks, there are serious questions regarding your ability to get on base and hit for average.

However, the decreased strikeout rate in the majors/minors/spring training since lends me to believe that his 277 PA sample size from the first half of 2009 was a fluke. I won't peg Davis for a .300 AVG season any time soon, but a .280-.285 season, a la 2008? Why not? Who is to say Chris Davis cannot do in 2010 what he was largely forecast to do in 2009? Batting in the lower 1/3 of the order will surely not help his R/RBI totals, but a strong performance should lead to a promotion in a lineup that features such health risks as Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton.

I will concede that Davis may simply bust again in 2010. He still swings and misses a lot and does not walk. However, when he makes contact, it is of the best kind you could ask for. Davis won't cost you a lot, if anything, in most draft/auction leagues and he bring a lot of upside to the table. He is definitely worth the risk, in my opinion. I wouldn't necessarily bank your 2010 season on him (though I have Davis in all of my leagues, I also have Gordon Beckham or some other reliable backup option at my disposal), you should not be shocked to see him do big things for fantasy owners this year. Haters be warned. You officially have notice.


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Sexy Rexy said...

I didn't read this post but here's what I have to say about Chris Davis...

No, I'm just kidding. These type of posts are by far your best posts