One potential answer to my findings is to say that Davis has had 50 plate appearances (roughly a twelfth of a season) so far and therefore none of this is particularly relevant. Weird things most definitely happen over a small sample and we certainly wouldn’t focus on a random 50 PA sample in the middle of a season. However, as Dave Cameron recently explained, small sample sizes do tell us some information about players and there are certainly some statistics like strikeout rate and walk rate that become statistically reliable even after a minimal amount of plate appearances. It makes sense to look deeper at Chris Davis’ plate discipline statistics and see if there is anything that we can learn. It’s worth noting that the good folks at Camden Chat had a similar idea about Adam Jones on Monday.
Chris Davis has a swinging strike rate of 18.6% which is one of the worst in the majors and therefore it isn’t surprising that he has a high percentage of strikeouts and low percentage of walks. In addition, teams are throwing him more strikes in 2015 than they have in previous years while he’s swinging at a similar percentage of balls as he has in the past. Basically, these statistics indicate that Chris Davis’ plate discipline has regressed over his first 50 PAs and help explain why he is struggling.
This makes me wonder whether Chris Davis is struggling to hit any specific pitch. Brooks Baseball uses Pitch f/x data to determine how hitters perform against each pitch. Here is how Chris Davis performed when facing a given pitch in 2012 and 2013 combined and this shows how he did in 2014. This is how Chris Davis has performed so far this year.
The charts show that Chris Davis is having a huge problem with four-seam fastballs compared to previous years. He’s faced 77 of them and has only put the ball fair into play 4 times (in 37 swings). Even worse, in previous years about 42% of the four-seamers that he faced were balls, but this year only 31% have been. Pitchers are throwing him four-seamers for strikes, but he’s still been unable to put them into play. His whiff rate has jumped from 14% to 20% and his foul rate has increased significantly also. All in all, based on his numbers from 2012-2014, I’d expect him to put 10 four-seam fastballs into play instead of just 4. Since this is the most common pitch that batters face it is probably a bad sign that Chris Davis is struggling to put them into play and helps explain the increase in his strikeout rate. I do find this worrisome even if it’s only a limited sample.
There isn’t any other pitch type that really stands out to me. It is interesting to note that Chris has faced more changeups and sliders this year than sinkers (Brooks Baseball includes 2-seam fastballs in the sinker category) in direct contrast to 2012 through 2014. This possibly could be because Chris has had success hitting sinkers this year. He’s struck out only once on a sinker and has put 6 of the 25 sinkers that he’s faced into play with excellent results (2 singles, 1 double and 1 home run). In comparison, out of the 61 combined changeups and sliders that he’s faced, he’s been struck out 6 times and has only put eight into play with decent results (1 single and 2 doubles). So far in the season, he’s had the best results against sinkers and it could be why pitchers won’t throw it as frequently until he shows he can hit something else successfully.
The bottom line is that so far Chris Davis has been successful this year because he’s been crushing sinkers and has struggled due to an inability to put four-seam fastballs into play. Pitchers are possibly adjusting by throwing him fewer sinkers this year than in previous years. I suspect that it is a severe red flag (albeit early) that Davis has been unable to make contact against four-seam fastballs. It isn't early to be worried but it's definitely early to write him off. I think that if he doesn't show improvement by mid-May then there is almost definitely a big problem. In the meantime, that is definitely something for the team to monitor.