14 August 2017

Another Fall For Chris Davis

This is not the worst Chris Davis has been, and it's not the worst he's going to be. At 31 years old and in the second year of a massive contract, Davis has been extremely disappointing in 2017 for an O's team that could desperately use the 2013 or 2015 versions of Davis, let alone the one from last season. Instead, Davis has been more like the 2014 version, when he had a similar wRC+ to what he does now (94 then, 93 now) and a wOBA that was just seven points worse.

The strongest sign yet that Buck Showalter and the O's are frustrated and recognize Davis's struggles is that he recently dropped in the batting order. (Showalter also dropped a slumping Davis in the order last August for a while.) On Thursday, Davis received a day off, with Showalter noting to reporters that Davis may not even play on Friday. Instead, Davis found his name on the lineup card, yet he had been dropped from his standard spot at cleanup to seventh. It's also worth noting that Trey Mancini leapfrogged Mark Trumbo, who moved to sixth, with Tim Beckham moving to the leadoff spot and Adam Jones taking over at cleanup. It's not unusual for Showalter to tinker with his lineup in... let's say, interesting ways, but it's hard to ignore a lineup in which Davis is batting seventh (and justifiably so).

The Orioles (read: Peter Angelos) inked a power-hitting first baseman to a huge contract that would start in his age-30 season. Obviously, there were red flags. Things have gotten worse. In 2016, Davis was not nearly as good as he had been the year before (with a 148 wRC+ and 5.6 fWAR), but he was fine (with a 111 wRC+ and 2.7 fWAR).

Fans were hoping for a rebound, especially since Davis's production throughout his career has been pretty erratic from year to year. As I've noted before, Davis has never had two seasons in a row with a wOBA difference of fewer than 43 points. As of right now, that number is 18, meaning that streak will probably come to an end. Instead of a jump in production, Davis has continued to fall, and the only real comforting thought is his track record: maybe he'll just bounce back because he's done it before.

But again, things aren't trending in the right direction for Davis. Injuries are somewhat of a concern. Davis dislocated his thumb in June of 2016, which had a negative impact on the second half of the season for him. Then this past June, Davis injured his right oblique and missed about a month on the disabled list. He does seem to be healthy now, but it hasn't resulted in an uptick in production.

Let's run through some other concerns. Davis is striking out 36.5% of the time, which is ridiculous, even for him (career 31.7 K%). His .210 ISO is approaching the worst mark in his O's career (.209 in 2015). He's continuing to offer at fewer pitches in the strike zone (53.3%), and is again swinging a bit less overall (42.1%). Both marks would be career lows. He's also making less contact on out-of-zone pitches (47.4%), which would also be a career worst. And all of this is coming with opposing pitchers being less afraid to challenge him in the zone (43.5 Zone%, highest since 2014).

Davis's deteriorating pitch recognition skills are a serious problem. Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer highlighted as much in his June piece, "Chris Davis Has Become MLB’s Caught-Looking King":
Davis, though, is taking called strikeouts to an unprecedented extreme. After striking out looking 56 times in both 2014 and 2015, he set an all-time single-season record last year with 79 punchouts, breaking the previous record of 72 set by Jack Cust in 2007. (Cust is the only other hitter ever to top 67.) And Davis seems determined to obliterate his own record this year. The average hitter this season has struck out looking at a rate that would translate to 30 punchouts per 600 plate appearances. Davis has already been rung up 35 times in just 208 plate appearances, putting him on pace for a ridiculous 109. The 11-strikeout gap between Davis and the next-most-frequent looking-K victims of 2017 — Keon Broxton and Ryan Schimpf, who are tied with 24 — is as big as the gap between those two and the 11 hitters who are tied for 39th place. Davis is the king of caught looking. And while striking out isn’t awful in the abstract, he can’t hit homers if he doesn’t swing.
Davis's oblique injury occurred a couple weeks after that post was written, so topping his dubious record from last season may be out of reach. Still, despite missing that time, Davis is the current leader in called strikeouts with 51. That's four more than Aaron Judge, who has stepped to the plate 125 more time than Davis.

Davis not swinging the bat, even at strikes, is worrisome. But things haven't gone as well even when he makes contact. Let's look at three of Davis's batted ball statistics from 2015-2017, courtesy of Statcast. Keep in mind that for all of the ranks, the minimum is 30 batted balls.

Exit velocity
2015: 91.9 mph (18th)
2016: 90.8 mph (t-61st)
2017: 89.2 mph (t-79th)

2015: 9.9% (t-6th)
2016: 8.0% (29th)
2017: 6.1% (t-96th)
Barrel = Well-struck balls with an expected BA/SLG above .500/1.500

Average batted ball distance
2015: 217 feet (t-12th)
2016: 213 feet (t-19th)
2017: 210 feet (26th)

Davis's offensive skills were always going to deteriorate at some point in the next few seasons. That's how things work with first basemen. Unfortunately, he has declined faster than anticipated. In reality, Davis hasn't really been good since the first half of 2016, when he posted a wRC+ of 123.

This is the part where we talk a little more about Davis's $161 million contract (in which he's paid $23M per year, with $6 million of that deferred without interest per year). The non-deferred part of his contract runs through 2022, and he'll be receiving deferred payments through 2037.

Unless things turn around in a hurry - and it's still possible Davis rights the ship - the Orioles will be paying money for a long time to a player who isn't very good, without receiving the exceptional upfront production they were hoping for. The most positive thing you could really say about the Davis deal at the time was that the O's decided to spend that money on any player at all. It still looked misguided, and it will almost assuredly end up being discussed and mocked the same way that Ryan Howard's and Albert Pujols's contracts are. That's how things work with aging first basemen. But even those guys didn't fall off as quickly as Davis has.

There's really not much else to say. Davis's contract is unmovable, and he either starts playing better or he doesn't. He's still going to find his name in the lineup card on a daily basis as long as he's healthy. If this is the new normal for Davis, there's a lot of disappointment to come.

Photo via Keith Allison. Stats via FanGraphs and Statcast. Salary information via Cot's.


Ace said...

The real culprit for Davis' contract is the O's decision to let Cruz walk. Had Cruz been on the team at the time, the O's would not have felt pressure to keep another power hitter in the lineup - not for that price anyway. The contract looked like Ryan Howard 2.0 from the start and its lived up to the billing. His production will continue to drop, lets not fool ourselves.

Even worse, Davis has a no trade clause. Is there a viable exit strategy in a year or two? For instance, would a team be willing to take on the final four years of Davis' contract in exchange for a mid-level prospect? What if the O's paid half of the remaining salary?

Boy, this is ugly.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I'm not sure the decision to pass on Cruz had much of an effect. The O's would have still needed a first baseman, and if the O's are going to spend big for someone, it's their own players (specifically position players). For whatever reason, Angelos did not want to let Davis get away.

As far as an exit strategy, I don't see one. The O's would never pay a team that much money to take Davis or really anyone, and I don't know why any team would want Davis right now or even in a year or two.

Pip said...

Almost every team, even those with competent GM's, which I firmly believe that Dan is not, has an albatross contract. Wise teams do not give out stupid contracts, but the Orioles have given out almost, almost, nothing but in the last several years.
However, at least it's not Robinson CanĂ³ or Albert Pujols or Hamilton, or any of a very large number of stupid contracts.
I actually give Dan a pass on this one, because he just did what he was told to do and given the circumstances, was able to be fairly fiscally responsible.
The important thing now is to be wise and surround Davis with people who can compensate for his lapses. That is where Dan loses his accumulated forgiveness, because he has done nothing to assemble any kind of logical roster.