Hype is a strange beast. It can originate from the most innocuous of sources (such as, say, a throwaway line in a prospect-oriented chat session), or from scouting-based player evaluations, or unexpectedly high placement in organizational/baseball-wide prospect rankings (e.g. Neftali Feliz in 2007-2008), or breakout statistical performances. It can fluctuate to dramatic extremes during the course of a single calendar year. It can spill over from a player's formative minor league seasons into the beginning stages of his major league career, and in the process grow even louder and more unavoidable. Then it can be virtually obliterated within the span of a few short months.
The other thing about hype is that for all but the most exceptional, can't-miss baseball talents, there are going to be those cynical few who won't completely buy into it, accompanied by an even more select group of diehard skeptics who will readily assume the role of devil's advocate just so that they can present evidence belying the hype. Where Chris Davis was concerned, though, there really wasn't much skepticism to be found during his meteoric 2007-2008 rise through the system, and that which did exist primarily concerned his glove, rather than his bat. "The biggest knock on Davis is his defense, as he's a slow third baseman with bad hands," wrote Kevin Goldstein in December 2007.
To be fair, there was always some basic level of recognition regarding the one major kink in Davis's offensive profile (that being his walks-to-strikeouts ratio, or "plate discipline," as it were), but as he drew within closer proximity of the big leagues and his nonpareil minor league offensive performance prompted his labeling as a success story in player development for the Rangers, the doubt noticeably subsided. It's pretty easy to overlook such shortcomings as a below-average walks-to-strikeouts ratio when you're not only making incremental improvements in that area (albeit in the minors), but also cranking out 35-plus-homer seasons and snapping off high batting averages.
I don't think anybody could have foreseen the extent to which Chris Davis completely collapsed last year (or, for that matter, the extent to which most of us were absolutely blindsided), but in retrospect, maybe our guards should have been raised higher. Given the forebodingly dreadful plate discipline statistics which he compiled during his 317-plate appearance rookie campaign, maybe we should have braced ourselves for something like this happening. I don't know. What is clear is that his one major underlying flaw came to a head during April-June 2009, with the end result being one of the most grotesque offensive performances over an extended period in recent memory.
Davis, to his unwavering credit, has said and (apparently) done all of the right things during these intervening months, and I'm certainly not going to begrudge the possibility of Davis leveraging all of the elements that do still work in his favor -- chiefly, his youth and his talent, and perhaps the changeover in coaching supervision from Rudy Jaramillo to Clint Hurdle as well -- and re-emerging as the player that most of us believed he was capable of becoming before last year's debacle ... but now it's my turn to air some skepticism.
Recall the wave of relief that washed over Rangers fandom last August/September when Davis, after a seven-week remedial stint at Triple-A Oklahoma City, batted .318/.350/.518 over his final 117 plate appearances. Initially held up as an indication that Davis was "fixed," these numbers obfuscate the 68-point disparity between his BABIP and xBABIP (expected batting average on balls in play) during that span; after plugging his component batted-ball rates into the xBABIP formula, his performance should have more closely resembled something along the lines of .275/.315/.465, which is markedly better than his early-season performance but is still, at the same time, nothing worth writing home about.
And while Davis's abysmally low early-season contact rate did inch closer towards the realm of respectability following his return to the majors (as did his strikeout rate), his walks-to-strikeouts ratio still lingered in the 0.15-0.20 range. That's bad. Really bad. Major league hitters can (and do) thrive with high strikeout totals, provided that they're accompanied by above-average walk rates, and can survive with the combination of low walk and strikeout rates; the reason you see very, very few major league hitters with high strikeout totals and low walk rates is because very, very few of them are capable of sticking in the majors for any extended period of time with that offensive profile.
Since the end of the 1950 season, only 43 players have rolled through the major leagues who have managed to (a) amass at least 2,000 plate appearances, or the rough equivalent of four full major league seasons, while (b) concurrently posting career walks-to-strikeouts ratios below 0.30. Not surprisingly, this list is riddled with offensively mediocre catchers (Bob Melvin, Miguel Olivo), light-hitting middle infielders (Angel Berroa, Dave McKay) and guys long on talent but light on polish and/or finesse (Corey Patterson, Jeff Francoeur), which, insofar as Davis's long-term prospects are concerned, isn't exactly favorable company to find yourself in.
And to reiterate an earlier point, Davis isn't necessarily destined to remain a low-walk, high-strikeout player for the rest of his career; walk rates for hitters do generally increase throughout their prime and into their age-3X seasons, but on a slightly less positive note, changes in a hitter's strikeout rate -- as Keith Woolner of Baseball Prospectus found in this 2000 study -- are retained from one season to the next at a higher rate than even changes in home run rate or walk rate, which is bad news given his current trends. If he can figure out a way to alter his profile, then great. If he can't ... well, then simply blame the hype machine. It's the perfect scapegoat.