Let’s face it — there’s no way not to feel uncomfortable about the Chris Davis sweepstakes.
I’m not just referring to how the Orioles and Davis seem to be at something of an impasse. I’m not just referring to how Davis has to this point been unable to drum up much of a market. It’s just, this is going to require a lot of money, and it’s hard to know what Davis is going to be. He’s as much a boom-or-bust player as you can find: Last year, he hit as well as Jose Bautista; the year before, he hit as well as Jed Lowrie. He’s been bad and he’s been an MVP candidate, and there’s a whole lot of space in between.
I don’t think player comps can be much help. For one thing, there just aren’t very many. Davis is an unusual player, historically speaking; given his massive power and his massive strikeout side effect. Maybe the two best comps are Jim Thome and Ryan Howard, and their careers went in completely opposite directions. Those comps are as unhelpful as Davis’ recent track record. He could turn out really amazing. He could be a disaster. This isn’t particularly illuminating.
Davis is 230 pounds of uncertainty. The extent of his success will be determined by what happens with a handful of swings every season, and there’s a lot of room for that to go right or wrong. Basically, there’s no achieving actual comfort. There’s only pursuing artificial comfort. That comes out of just learning more information — more knowledge has to be a good thing, right? — so let’s take a look at something that’s been going on under the hood. Let’s learn more about Davis, even if it might not ultimately help to understand what his future’s going to be.
You know the general Chris Davis career narrative. Big power, too many strikeouts with Texas. He found himself in Baltimore. He had a good season, then an unbelievable season, but then he had a mediocre season. Then he had another great season. In terms of his overall performance, Davis has bounced around. Yet there’s one trend that’s been easy to miss. One area where Davis has been quietly moving.
Over time, his spray charts have changed. Most of what anyone notices are the home runs, but Davis has become a different hitter, directionally speaking. Let’s look at his last five years in this table. Shown are Davis’ pull rates — batted balls yanked to right and right-center. Then Davis’ percentile ranks in that category in the league. Then, for a little more information, you see his groundball pull rates, and his flyball pull rates.
Chris Davis Batted Balls
The trend here is fairly steady. More and more often, Davis has been hitting the ball to the pull side. It’s been true with grounders, and it’s been true with flies. And where five years ago Davis actually ranked in the bottom half in pull rate, this past season he was right near the top of the league. Just about nobody else pulled the ball with Davis’ frequency.
For a visual, let’s borrow from Brooks Baseball. This is Davis’ spray chart from just three years back:
And here’s 2015:
There are similarities, sure. And there are still home runs to left-center and regular-center. But Davis has gone to right more, and this puts us in some uncharted territory. The comps were already flimsy, but neither Thome nor Howard ever really had this pull phase. Thome never pulled half of his batted balls, for as long as we have data. And Howard still has the same distribution as ever. So those comps grow weaker.
It doesn’t seem to be a great thing. Just off the top of my head, if nothing else this makes Davis easier to defend. There’s nothing to be done about the homers, but a more predictable Davis allows for more effective defensive alignments. Grounders and line drives die in the shift. That costs Davis hits.
And you wonder what else this might indicate. This isn’t something that just happens by accident, so Davis has made intentional adjustments. It’s not like he’s lacking in bat speed, but all-fields hitters tend to be less exploitable. Pull hitters can be easier to work around, and if Davis is gradually losing his ability to drive the ball with regularity to left and center, that could be the beginning of deterioration.
People say that, as hitters age, they try to become more pull-happy, to squeeze out as much power as possible. That’s not the only explanation, but this could be Davis adopting and embracing an old-player skill. Which isn’t what you want to think about a player who’s been offered a seven-year contract.
In the end, I can’t say much of anything with certainty. I don’t love this trend, but Davis obviously made the pull-hitting thing work just last year. He still has the power to hit the ball out the other way, and maybe next year the trend will suddenly reverse. Players are always adjusting, and Davis himself is proof that you can make excellent adjustments at a later age than usual. He’s a gifted player. He’s not even 30 yet. What this is, more than anything else, is a curiosity.
But it’s just another thing to consider as Davis mulls a return to Baltimore. Signing with the Orioles is probably what’s best for Davis. The rest of us are left to wonder whether signing Davis is what’s best for the Orioles.