06 September 2016

Why Is Chris Davis Struggling?

(Stats accurate through September 4th and data from ESPN Stats and Information TruMedia Data Portal)

Chris Davis is having a good but disappointing season. On the one hand, he has been worth 2.7 fWAR, has a 114 wRC+ and has 33 home runs and 74 RBIs. His offensive production ranks 65th out of 154 qualified batters or roughly in the 58th percentile. On the other hand, after giving him a 7 year, $161 million contract, the Orioles were probably hoping that he’d be better than good. Furthermore, this may have worrisome connotations for the rest of his contract. If he’s poor this year, then what does this mean for future years?

Fortunately, a comprehensive look at his statistics shows reason for optimism. With a 13.6% walk rate and a 33.2% strikeout rate, Chris Davis has a decent wOBA rate on pitches not in play. In fact, his .208 rate is around the 50th percentile and is a career high. In addition, Chris Davis is crushing pitches that are in the strike zone. His wOBA of .582 matches his rate in 2015 and ranks only behind Mike Trout this year. His problem is making contact against pitches not in the strike zone. Against those, Chris Davis only has a .229 wOBA good for 9th worst in the majors. His home run against a pitch out of the strike zone on the fifth was just his second of the year. This is how his numbers look.

In general, while wOBA against pitches in the strike zone and wOBA in plate appearances where the ball isn’t put into play are skill-based, wOBA against pitches out of the strike zone is largely due to luck. Chris Davis is in the sixth percentile against those pitches this year, and that’s probably due to laughably bad luck. If he was in the 50th percentile in this skill, he’d have an overall wOBA of .366 and would rank 40th out of 154 in the majors or the 74th percentile. If he was in the 80th percentile, he’d have a wOBA of .373 and would rank 33rd or the 79th percentile. If he was in the 95th percentile, as one would expect from a top slugger, he’d have a .378 wOBA and would rank 28th or be in the 81st percentile. If Chris Davis had those numbers, then the Orioles would be in better shape.

However, it also indicates that this isn’t Chris Davis’ only problem. Part of his problem is due to pitch selection. In 2015, 41.34% of his plate appearances ended with him putting a strike into play and 44.8% resulted in either a walk, strikeout or hit by pitch. In 2016, 38.6% of his plate appearances ended with him putting a pitch in the strike zone into play and 48% have resulted in either a walk, strikeout or hit by pitch. In order for Chris Davis to be successful, he needs to put pitches in the zone into play.

The reason for this seems to be in part due to the drop in his swing rate. Chris Davis reduced his swing rate from 47.3% in 2015 to 42.7% in 2016 and as a result, his in play rate dropped from 13.3% to 12.5%. I suggested that Chris Davis swing less in the offseason, and it hasn’t worked so well for him. The reason it’s failed is because his called ball rate has only increased from 40.3% to 41.3% but his called strike rate increased from 12.5% to 16%. This is especially bad because pitchers are throwing him fewer strikes this year than in the last year.

So far this year, he’s swung at 61.7% of pitches in the strike zone compared to 70% in 2015, good for 120th out of 154 qualified batters. His in play percentage has dropped from 21.9% to 20.9% while his swinging strike rate has decreased from 19.56% to 16.41% and his foul rate has dropped from 28.5% to 24.4%. This seems to suggest that he’s suffered minimal damage from swinging at fewer pitches in the strike zone because he’s not swinging at the strikes he wasn’t hitting anyway. But he has also put 10.5 fewer pitches into play than he would have if he was putting strikes into play at his 2015 rate.

However, this year he’s also only swung at 27.7% of pitches out of the strike zone compared to 28.4% in 2015. Given his swing rates against pitches in the strike zone, I’d expect that number to have dropped to about 25%. It suggests that he’s struggled to determine when he shouldn’t swing at a pitch. In addition, despite swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone, the chances of one of these pitches being called a ball has dropped from 67.9% to 67.1% while his called strike rate has increased from 3.8% to 5.1%.

In addition, Davis has swung at 18.2% of pitches that are more than 18 inches from the strike zone this year, which is around his career average. He’s swung at 54.4% of pitches that are less than 18 inches from the strike zone, which is considerably lower than average. This suggests that his extra patience hasn’t resulted in considerably better selection.

The bottom line is that he’s been more patient and has decided to swing at fewer pitches close to the strike zone. Unfortunately for him, most of those pitches have ended up in the strike zone. This has resulted in him having his strike rate increase faster than his ball rate and therefore he hasn’t seen many benefits from swinging less frequently.

Going forward, a considerable amount of his problems are due to bad luck and probably won’t continue next year. Therefore, we should expect him to show significant improvement next year. However, this trend of swinging less promises to help him in the future. He needs to work on swinging less at pitches completely out of the strike zone. But I would expect his called ball rate to improve and his called strike rate to decrease next year even if it’s due to just random luck.

Chris Davis may have had a tough 2016 so far, but he’s showing he can make the adjustments that can keep him an elite hitter in 2017 and beyond. Expect good things out of him.


Roger said...

And how does the report from yesterday about Davis having a sore hand "since April" affect this analysis. My guess is the soreness makes him swing less and at pitches that don't make him more sore (like inside pitches might). It's possible the difference in swing rate is not conscious but protective. Plus I can't believe the O's let him go all year with an undisclosed injury. That may have cost the O's a few wins as opposed to putting him on the DL and giving someone like Mancini a few ABs. Or even let Trumbo play first and put someone elese in RF.

Matt P said...

I didn't see that report. Honestly, I'd have to graph out where he's swinging to answer that question. I'm probably not going to get to that until after the season.

That stated, Chris Davis has been above average hitter this year even despite the luck. I find it unlikely that Mancini would have outperformed him. And the Os didn't really have anyone that could play RF much better than Trumbo without being a significant offensive downgrade.

Roger said...

No, I don't think Mancini or other should have had significant playing time but if a 15-day DL stint would help the hand rather than just living with for the whole year, seems like that's a risk worth taking. And truly Davis is heating up like he seems to do every September. Our assessment of his 2013 would be very different if his suspension would have happened in July instead of September.

Matt P said...

Fair enough. I don't know whether Davis has been injured the whole season, and whether a 15-day DL stint would have helped.