Once upon a time, Chris Davis was one of the most highly regarded position prospects in baseball. In his first full professional season in 2007, Davis hit 36 home runs and batted .297/.347/.598 as a 21-year-old in the California and Texas Leagues. Baseball America ranked him No. 65 on its annual top 100 prospects list. Davis was even better as a 22-year-old, as he hit .335/.376/.618 in 202 plate appearances in AA, .333/.402/.685 in 127 plate appearances in AAA, and .285/.331/.549 in 317 plate appearances in the major leagues. Had he been eligible, Davis would have ranked among the top 20 prospects in baseball at the end of 2008.
And then came the first three months of the 2009 season. The Rangers' starting first baseman struck out in 41.2 percent of his plate appearances en route to a .202/.256/.415 slash line. Davis was sent to AAA where he reduced his strikeout rate to 23.6 percent, increased his walk rate to 12.8 percent, and hit .327/.418/.521. Davis returned to Arlington for the last two months of 2009 and hit a much more respectable .308/.338/.496, while striking out in 25.4 percent of his plate appearances. Davis’ reduced strikeout rate did come with a cost, as his extra-base hit rate dropped to 29 percent from the 49 percent that he had posted during his minor and major league career up to that point.
Davis got off to a slow start again in 2010, hitting .188/.282/.294 in 53 major league at-bats before he was demoted to the minors. In 213 plate appearances for the Triple-A Oklahoma City Redhawks, Davis has hit .352/.406/.539, and struck out in just 21.7 percent of his at-bats after striking out in 35.4 percent of his major league at-bats at the beginning of 2010.
The root cause of Davis’ problems in 2009 and 2010 is easy to identify: Through his first three professional seasons, Davis posted nearly identical numbers against left- and right-handed pitchers (.300/.352/.603 and .303/.353/.558 vs. minor league right- and left-handed pitchers, respectively, and .288/.336/.534 and .286/.330/.607 vs. major league right- and left-handed pitchers, respectively). In 2009, Davis continued to hit right-handers well, but he suddenly lost his way against lefties (see graph below). It started with a 44 percent strikeout rate and a .141/.203/.282 line vs. major league left-handers at the beginning of the 2009 season.
Although he had decimated left-handed pitchers in AAA the year before (.310/.382/.724), Davis "struggled" against Triple-A left-handers after his demotion, hitting .283/.316/.491 in 53 plate appearances while hitting .351/.463/.581 in 111 plate appearances against right-handers. Until a few days ago, the trend had continued in 2010 as Davis had dominated right-handed pitchers in AAA (.363/.413/.575) and struggled against left-handers (.267/.367/.267). In the past week, Davis has two singles, two doubles, and a HBP to raise his season line against lefties to .306/.381/.389. That is beginning to approach respectable, but a far cry from what he is doing against right-handers.
The strange thing about the sudden change in Davis’ performance is that there was not a readily apparent alteration in how major league left-handers approached pitching to him. As noted in the first table below, Davis has seen roughly the same distribution of pitches from left-handers in each of his major league stints. Davis’ lack of performance against left-handers in early 2009 derived almost exclusively from an inability to hit fastballs, as the rate that he put balls in play dropped from 17 percent in 2008 to five percent in the first half of 2009. He improved his in-play rate on fastballs from major league left-handers to 13 percent in the second half of 2009 and to 16 percent in early 2010; thus, this does not appear to be a recurring problem. With that said, his overall struggles with left-handers appear unlikely to go away soon.
LHP Pitch Usage vs. Chris Davis (Major Leagues, 2008-2010)
Chris Davis Going Forward
Prior to each season, Baseball Prospectus publishes a list of players whose age-appropriate statistical profiles are most similar to each player in the league. Earlier this year, the 15 players with statistical profiles through their age-23 seasons that were most similar to Chris Davis comprised eight players who became everyday contributors in the major leagues and included Eric Karros (No. 1), Glenn Davis (No. 4), Joey Votto (No. 6), Lee Stevens (No. 9), Richie Sexson (No. 12), and David Ortiz (No. 14).
According to the Minor League Equivalency Calculator, Davis’ .361/.414/.564 in 202 Triple-A at-bats would be equivalent to a major league line of .305/.354/.459. That’s Adam LaRoche/Gaby Sanchez-level production. Davis’ .368/.418/.583 in 163 Triple-A at-bats against right-handed pitchers translates to a major league line of .312/.358/.482, while his .306/.381/.389 against left-handers would be equivalent to .259/.302/.326 in the majors. Davis is Ryan Howard when facing right-handers and a Triple-A journeyman when facing left-handers.
Davis’ hitting against left-handers seems likely to improve as he gains experience against quality southpaws. Most power hitters improve their slugging and walk rates through their age-27 or -28 seasons. Given that he is still just 24 years old and that he advanced quickly through the minor leagues, it is very likely that Davis will improve significantly in the next few seasons.
If the Rangers resist the temptation to trade Davis, the challenge will be in finding a role for him. In the near-term, he appears ideally suited as the left-handed component of a 1B/DH platoon. Unfortunately for Davis, the major league team doesn’t currently have that need. Although the sample sizes and metric quality are too limited to be sure, it appears that Davis is making progress with his defense at third base (see table below). Assuming that is the case, then it is possible that Davis could provide Young, Smoak, and Guerrero with an occasional day off and pinch hit for a catcher when the situation calls for a left-handed hitter. That’s not the most valuable thing in the world, but it appears to be role that Davis can fill. For now, Davis provides excellent insurance for injuries that affect 1B, 3B, or DH.
By 2011, Davis could be a part of the solution at DH or 1B if Vlad departs as a free agent. By 2012, Davis could potentially platoon with or perhaps even replace Michael Young as the team’s third baseman. If he spends another month in the minors, then Davis will be under club control through the 2015 season, when he will be 29 years old. Davis is unlikely to be the perennial All-Star that many hoped for following his 2008 season, but it appears very likely that he will eventually develop into a player who could be a key contributor to a contending team. And for now, he is the most interesting position player in the Rangers’ minor league system.