05 March 2012

Eyes on Spring Training: Is Chris Davis the Next Eric Karros?

Chris Davis is slotted in to begin the season as the Orioles' starting first baseman.  He is an interesting player.  He has shown massive power in the minors and has flashed skills in the Majors that could lead to him being a good offensive first baseman.  However, he does not have historical precedence in his favor.  If you do a search for first basemen who had over 1000 plate appearances and a rWAR worse than -2, you come up with the following list:

Player  WAR/pos  From  To  Age 
Chris Davis  -2.4 2008 2011 22-25 
Dan Meyer  -5.6 1974 1978 21-25 
Howie Schultz  -2.7 1943 1948 20-25 
The is not a list to be excited about.  Dan Meyer showed some promising raw power, but was never quite able to make it play in a game situation.  He bounced around from Detroit to the expansion Mariners and then finally the Oakland A's where he was related to a role player and, eventually, AAA depth.  Howie Schultz' offensive success in the depleted minors during WW2 did not translate to the Majors (At 6'6, he was rejected for military service).  When the soldiers came back, it was apparent that he did not have the ability to play baseball and decided to flip over to the NBA where he won a championship with the Lakers.

This looks bad, but it is difficult to look at these players and see a strong relationship to who Chris Davis is.  When your sample size is three, there may be considerable differences between the players and different reasons for struggling may not mean that those reasons are equally challenging to overcome.  Davis' -2.4 rWAR is composed of a below average offensive component and an atrocious defensive component.  Dan Meyer's defense rates similarly to Davis, but his offense is horrendous.  Schultz' -2.7 is similar to Davis', but all of it is a result of an inability to hit.  I have difficulty with these players informing us about Chris Davis' future.

In light of this, I performed a new search looking for first basemen who have had between 1000 and 1500 plate appearances through their age 25 season and who were below average at hitting and fielding.  This resulted in four players:

Player  WAR/pos  From  To  Age 
Ricky Jordan  1.7 1988 1990 23-25 
Willie Upshaw  -0.9 1978 1982 21-25 
Eric Karros  -1.7 1991 1993 23-25 
Chris Davis  -2.4 2008 2011 22-25 
This list is actually a bit more promising.  Ricky Jordan was a platoon player on the platoon crazy early 90s Phillies teams.  He was a big guy who was above average against lefties and was eaten up by righties.  Unfortunately, such a player is not of much use these days with the expansion of the bullpen.  It is difficult to keep a strict platoon first baseman on a roster.  Willie Upshaw broke out in his age 26 season with a 4.3 rWAR and maintained starter production for an additional two seasons.  Afterward, he struggled to produced and went over to Japan.  Eric Karros took until his age 27 season to figure out how to up his contact rate high enough to become a good major league starter.  He had the best career of the players in this group.  There are also some similarity between the two in terms of them both being solid contact based minor league power hitters.  If Davis can match a similar career path as Karros, the Orioles should be happy.

Of course, Davis needs to figure out how to hit pitches that are not just down the middle or down the lower middle of the plate.

As you can see on the heat map above, Davis underperforms when he is challenged high, outside, and pretty much inside as well.  This graph is based only on 836 pitches, but it really gives the appearance of an amazing mistake pitch hitter.  It could be a major reason why he dominates AAA because the pitching at that level is filled with guys whose control is not the greatest.

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