24 March 2017

Chris Davis Should Swing More

One of the longstanding criticisms about the Orioles offense is their penchant to avoid walks like the plague. Since 2012, the Orioles rank 23rd in baseball in OBP, despite the fact that they are 6th in runs scored. The biggest reason? The team has hit far and away the most home runs in baseball during that time frame. One of the biggest reasons for that? Chris Davis, who leads all of baseball with 197 homers during that time.

Of course, Davis has been the best OBP guy on the team, posting a .340 OBP since 2012, a mark surpassed only by Nick Markakis (in fewer PA, naturally).  Even in what has to be considered a down season in 2016, Davis still finished second on the team with a .332 OBP, and in general runs an OBP that is far better than his batting average, making him almost like a unicorn on this particular team.

This should be great! The O's need OBP guys, and Davis is one of the most patient hitters on the team. It's likely one of the reasons that he may be the best leadoff option on the team.  The problem, however, is that the more selective Davis has been in his career, the less success he has seen overall. Davis' walk rate has increased every single season since 2012, with his 13.2% in 2016 representing a career high, but produced his two worst offensive seasons in 2014 and 2016. This is a puzzle, as in general we'd expect high walk rates to correlate with increased offensive success.

One of the factors that may be able to explain this somewhat odd occurrence is to look at how often Davis actually swings the bat, since you can't hit homers and produce big offensive numbers unless you hit the ball.  Davis swung at his lowest rate ever last season, swinging at just 42.7% of pitches. His career mark is 49.4%, and in his breakout 2013 season he swung at over 50% of the pitches he saw. To his credit, Davis swung at the fewest pitches outside of the strike zone in his career last season, but the flip side of that is he swung at the fewest percentage of pitches in the zone as well. In fact, the decline in this metric was so precipitous that it almost leads me to question whether his hand injury was far more severe than was reported. Unless his eyesight also declined last season, there is little other reason for why he went from swinging at 68% of strikes in 2015 to just under 60% in 2016.

This also brings up the issue of strikeouts, which is something that any discussion of Davis simply can't avoid. That Davis strikes out a lot is not news. What is interesting, however, is how he strikes out. Davis has, by far, the most called third strikes in baseball since 2012 with 279, and had 79 called third strikes in 2016, which is also the most by far for any player in any season since 2009.  Some of that is a simply function of the sheer volume of strikeouts he racks up, but looking a bit deeper into the yearly fluctuations of called K's is particularly interesting. Below is a table of Davis' called strikeout percentage, his Weighted Runs Created (WRC+) and his Weighted On Base Average (wOBA) by year.

Year Called K% WRC+ wOBA
2012 24 121 0.352
2013 24 168 0.421
2014 32 94 0.308
2015 27 148 0.390
2016 36 111 0.340

In years when Davis takes fewer called third strikes, he is at worst an above average hitter and at best one of the game's elites. In years where he takes a higher number of called third strikes, however, he is below average to slightly above.

Now, this may be sample size noise and there are likely other factors that contribute to Davis' offensive inconsistency, but it seems fairly clear that the less aggressive Davis is the less successful he is offensively. A strikeout is an out regardless, but a called third strike is probably the least productive out simply because there is no possibility of anything good happening. In Davis' case, it's doubly unproductive because he hits the ball extremely hard. He consistently ranks in the upper echelon of hard hit balls and obviously produces massive power when he connects.  

It seems odd to say that a player should be less selective, and even more so when that player is on the Baltimore Orioles. In Davis' case, however, taking fewer pitches and being more aggressive at the plate certainly seems to correlate with better offensive production.  So, I'd suggest something I never thought I'd have to to suggest to an Oriole: swing the bat!


Anonymous said...

We do need all the breeze we can get at those hot summer nights at the ballpark!

Roger said...

So here's an alternate theory...... How's Davis doing on his ADD meds? Is it possible that, if his meds aren't being effective, then he has problems concentrating on the pitch that's thrown and he has more trouble identifying strikes? One of his "down seasons" with "low swing rate" was the year he got suspended for Adderall. How closely do the O's or Davis himself monitor how his ADD is doing? Will he possibly be more aggressive if he has more effective meds?

Jon Shepherd said...

He had his medication last year. Probably not a major issue as many fans might wish.

Steve Coyne said...

In 2013, when Chris Davis hit his 53 HR's, he was mostly healthy and at full strength for the whole year - plus, he had his therapeutic exemption to use his ADD medication. In 2013 he was strong enough and healthy enough to expand the strike zone and still hit HR's on pitches out of the strike zone. In 2014, Chris Davis had the oblique injury which adversely affected his power and his swing most of the year. (He was less able to hit balls with authority that were out of the strike-zone). Also, he was not approved to take his ADD medication that year (he eventually started taking it anyway illegally and was suspended at the end of the season as a result). In 2015, he received his Therapeutic Use Exemption to take an ADD medication and was mostly healthy and strong again. He was once again able to expand the strike-zone more and still hit balls with authority. In 2016, he sustained that hand-injury early in the season while diving into 2nd base. That hand-injury adversely affected his swing and his power for the rest of the season where he could not confidently expand the strike-zone as much to try reach outside or lower pitches and hit them with as much authority. This year, if he stays mostly healthy, he'll probably swing more aggressively and more often and have a year more similar to 2015.

Jon Shepherd said...

To be clear, he has ADHD. His violation was for adderol. His TUE is for Vyvanse.

Jon Shepherd said...

Be wary with convenient narratives.

Amoussou said...

To be clear, it is spelled Adderall. Here's to Davis clubbing 49 HRs/ 125RBIs/ .323 BA/ 158 SO / .375 OBP.

Jon Shepherd said...

I apologize for hurting your feelings. I only wished to distinguish his medication. Glad we were able to clear that up.

Anonymous said...

Feel the breeze, good luck with that .323 BA, steven Tyler says "Dream on!"