03 June 2013

Crushing the Competition: The Evolution of Chris Davis As An Elite Hitter

There aren't too many superlatives that haven't already been used to describe Chris Davis' season thus far- to put it modestly, Davis is having himself quite the year offensively:

AL Rank1212211t-1
*All 2013 stats as of June 2 and courtesy of Fangraphs.com

With Davis' explosion upon the American League slugging scene come comparisons to other big boppers of the past who sparkled ever so briefly, only to fade into oblivion and the annals of Baseball Prospectus. While sometimes comparisons are good, with Davis, the comparisons have become a tad disingenuous; they tacitly lend credence to the belief by many that Davis' stats are being accrued through unnatural means and not through hours of hard work, thousands of swings, and the maturation of someone who has always been projected to be a special hitter, blessed with the envious tool of once in a generation power.

As the saying goes: 'in God we trust; all others bring data'. Luckily with Davis, we have plenty of it, so instead of pointing fingers at the spectres of performance enhancing drug use as a means of explaining Davis' 2013, let's point our cursors over to Fangraphs, dig a little deeper into the numbers of the man they call Crush and see if they foreshadow any of the fireworks we have seen in 2013.

First, let's look at the most awe inspiring and ahh inducing of Davis' stats - home runs. As seen above, Davis leads the MLB in dingers, with 20 as of June 2, which is good for a 30.2 percent home run per flyball (HR/FB) rate, which also leads the MLB,  just a hair better than Washington Nationals OF Bryce Harper's 29.3 percent. Essentially, every other ball Davis lifts into the air is going out of the park - impressive. How does that fare historically?

2006Ryan Howard39.5%5870412.1
2002Jim Thome35.4%4964413.1
2008Ryan Howard31.8%4870014.6
2007Jack Cust31.7%2650719.5
2007Ryan Howard31.5%4764813.8
2002Sammy Sosa31.2%4966613.6
2002Manny Ramirez30.8%3351815.7
2003Jim Thome30.3%4769814.9
2006Travis Hafner30.2%4256413.4
2013Chris Davis30.2%1922611.7

While the HR/FB statistic is relatively new (it's been collected since 2002) and won't tell us anything about power hitters of years prior to the 2000's, we see that Davis' 30ish percent is only good for a tie for 9th place historically. We also see that Davis' plate appearances per home run (PA/HR) is a ridiculously good 11.7, on par with Babe Ruth's 1920 season which saw him hit his 54 homers that year every 11.4 plate appearances, but not quite as good as Barry Bonds' record setting 2001 season, which saw him hit his 73 homers every 9 plate appearances.

Davis is obviously doing some special things when compared to some historically comparable seasons and rates regarding home runs. However, what is making 2013 even more special for Davis goes beyond just his prodigious power. Let's now look at what Davis is doing compared to his own previous seasons, looking at some of his other hitting stats. I've taken the liberty to average his minor league seasons together, as well as his first four MLB seasons, as they were interrupted by stints to the minors, and use them in comparison to his breakout 2012 year and the first two months of this season:


What we see here is that not only has Davis' power been there all along, as his minor league PA/HR and OPS rates can attest, but we also see that he has begun to turn the corner with respect to his hitting approach. No longer just a power bat that can be carefully pitched around, or one that will get himself out via the strikeout from chasing bad pitches out of the strike zone, Davis has become a complete hitter. The dramatic drop in his MLB strikeout rate and a concomitant rise in his walk rate this year are both big examples of the dedication he's made to making the adjustments to his swing that allow it to remain in the zone for longer and make him less susceptible to offspeed pitches and pitches out of the zone. What is also interesting is looking at how his 2013 numbers mimic his minor league numbers, but then surpass them - another example of Davis becoming more of a student of the game and not just relying solely on his talent.

Let's drill down a little further into Davis' MLB numbers and look at the end results when Davis puts bat to ball:

AL average20%44%36%10.4%

Here again, we see a combination of things happening that allude to the fantastic season Davis is enjoying thus far. First, his line drive rates (LD%) haven't appreciably changed over the years and have always been above average, consistent with the underlying notion that Davis has always been a good hitter. What else is shown in this table is how well the swing adjustments have treated Davis; he is now hitting the ball less on the ground (GB%) and more frequently in the air (FB%), which helps in explaining the otherworldly home run rates Orioles fans have enjoyed out of Davis. Overall, we see a good hitter becoming even better by playing to his strengths - hitting the ball hard and in the air.

So far, we've been focused on the results of Davis' swing, now let's take a small step back and look at how the maturation and development of Davis as a more complete hitter starts right around contact:


For this table, we have some rates that describe how good Davis' batting eye is - O-Swing/Contact% describe how frequently Davis swings and makes contact with balls outside of the strikezone, Z-Swing/Contact% describe the same thing for pitches in the strikezone, while Swing/Contact% is for all swings made. Again, I compare 2013 and 2012 individually to his averages over the 2008-11 seasons.

So what can we learn here?

Davis has become a smarter, more patient hitter; looking at the swing rates, we see him swinging less in 2013 in general, but broken down, we see he is swinging more frequently at balls in the strikezone and laying off of pitches out of the zone. This alone would be an impressive change for Davis, but now, look at his contact rates; he is still making decent contact on pitches out of the zone even though he is swinging less frequently at these pitches, while also making contact at an absurd 90 percent of the time at pitches in the strike zone.

What we see with Chris Davis is the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of talent finally gelling, producing an elite hitter. Not to be forgotten in the shuffle is the fact that aside from a minor knee condition that kept him out of two games this season, Davis is finally healthy, after missing some time in 2012 with shoulder issues and in 2011 for a torn right labrum and a sports hernia, both requiring surgery. When you consider that the shoulder injury was to his lead shoulder when hitting, making him susceptible to missing breaking pitches and offspeed offerings, and the sports hernia affected his core and therefore his ability to explosively twist his trunk while swinging, it adds to the notion that 2013 is the year that Davis has finally been able to put it all together, both physically and mentally.

While history shows us that Davis' home run rates probably aren't sustainable, nor is his isolated power (ISO), it does tell us that he is a legitimate hitter that should be considered in the upper echelon of talent. His willingness to make the adjustments to his swing and approach that allow him to execute the way he has against opponents should be lauded, not castigated. What Chris Davis is doing to American League pitching should be enjoyed and admired, free of the whispers that it arose from unnatural means.


Bret said...

His contract is going to be a fascinating case study. He will only be 29 in the offseason he becomes a FA, same as Wieters. At this rate I would guess he doubles Wieters' dollars easily, maybe 2.5. I'd give him 20 before I'd give Wieters 10, let's put it that way.

Scott said...

Wouldn't Bautista's 5/$65 deal be the best comp for Davis?

Bautista was a year older and a year closer to free agency, so would something along the lines of buying out CD's 2 arb years for $21mm plus a 5/$80 extension make sense?

Bret said...

I would do that in a heartbeat if I were O's but doubt Boras would go for it. If Davis proves this is real and plays out arbitration he will get 20 mill easy per year. If Wieters keeps hitting .237 with no improvement he can kiss his big contract goodbye.

Scott said...

$90mm+ is a lot of money to pass up for someone with Davis' history of performance and injuries... Maybe I don't have $5mm I'm already sitting on to keep me comfy, but if it were me, I'd jump at that. Just sayin'.

But you're right Bret, I didnt realize Boras was his agent. Could be tough to get this done...

(The $90mm assumes 1 yr of arbitration salary is already in the bag)