June 16, 2009
Feeling the Breeze
About a year ago, I was invited to speak at Jamey Newberg's event at Ameriquest Field in Arlington, an event that included a Rangers/Blue Jays game. David Purcey pitched reasonably well for the Jays for three innings, then fell victim to the long ball: two two-run homers by Gerald Laird and a solo shot by some rookie I'd never seen-Chris Davis. Davis' shot was the most impressive of the three, a long homer to right-center off of the left-handed Purcey. The homer was Davis' 11th in five weeks in the majors; he would go on to hit 17 in a half-season of playing time, slugging .549 and making it seem as if the team had found a middle-of-the-lineup power source for some time to come.
Almost a year to the day of his call-up, Davis looks nothing like that guy. He's batting .208/.266/.431, and with 92 strikeouts in the Rangers' 62 games he's on pace to shatter the single-season strikeout record. That mark has broken three times in the last five years, most recently by Mark Reynolds, who became the first player to ever strike out 200 times in a big-league season last year, when he finished with 204. Davis, if allowed to play and K at his current pace-he's played in 59 of the Rangers' 62 games, starting 54-would bury that number just after Labor Day and finish with 233 strikeouts.
Now, if there's a stathead notion that's been beaten into the ground, it's the idea that strikeouts for hitters aren't a bad thing. They tend to show up in players who work deep counts and take big swings, making them a side effect of walks and power. Studies have shown that the difference between a strikeout and other forms of out is tiny, on the order of a hundredth of a run, in no small part because contact can lead to double plays, which are horrible for an offense. Despite the occasional complaints about the increased number of strikeouts in the game, the fact that the trend is upward throughout baseball history indicates that it's part of evolution, rather than a mutation.
At the individual level, players who are productive with high strikeout rates do so by being effective when they do make contact, and to a lesser extent, by drawing many walks. Just to give you an idea of what is possible, here are the top-five strikeout seasons in history:
On Contact Year K EqA AVG SLG Mark Reynolds 2008 204 .265 .385 .737 Ryan Howard 2007 199 .318 .430 .936 Ryan Howard 2008 199 .293 .316 .805 Jack Cust 2008 197 .313 .389 .806 Adam Dunn 2004 195 .314 .405 .866
Those are all above-average seasons, and most of them are very good seasons. Chris Davis isn't hitting anything like that. Davis had a .301 EqA a year ago and on-contact numbers of .406 and .783, but he is at .243 this season, with an on-contact batting average of .381 and and on-contact SLG of .791. He's getting the same results when he hits the ball, but he's hitting the ball less often than he did even a year ago. David has slipped from striking out an acceptable 29.8 percent of the time to a ridiculous 45.5 percent.
Why is Davis whiffing his way out of the league? The data on Fangraphs shows that Davis is swinging and missing more on pitches inside the strike zone, and that he's seeing more fastballs than he did a year ago. Taken those two things in combination, it can be surmised that pitchers are simply blowing him away, challenging Davis and winning because he's unable to handle the heat. Davis is not showing much patience, either, swinging at three of every four pitches he sees within the zone.
Davis is doing fine on contact, but unless he increases the number of times an at-bat ends that way, brings it back within the range of the more extreme strikeout batters in history, he won't be able to keep his job. The Rangers have a real chance to succeed this season, and they cannot carry anyone with a .200-something OBP, certainly not a first baseman with an average glove. There's a case to be made that Justin Smoak, last year's first-round pick, is already a better player than Davis. A first baseman with a plus glove, Smoak has missed June with a left oblique strain, the injury doing what Texas League pitchers could not: Smoak was batting .325/.444/.503 when he went to the DL. Even if Smoak isn't fast-tracked, the Rangers could squeeze Davis' playing time by calling up outfielder Brandon Boggs (.405 OBP) or Julio Borbon (a true center fielder with speed and some OBP skills), moves that would cost Davis playing time. (Max Ramirez is no longer in the mix for 2009 at-bats at first base or DH, with a .246/.287/.355 line at Oklahoma City.)
The Rangers believe that Davis will be a part of their future. Their present, though, includes a two-game lead in the AL West and an offense desperate for men on base. It's a bit ironic that for Chris Davis to have a chance at the strikeout record, he'll need to strike out less from here on out; otherwise, the team will have to take him out of the lineup. Given his track record and skill set, Davis is unlikely to improve enough on contact to help the team as a first baseman. Whether the solution is Smoak or something more creative, the sooner the Rangers make that move, the better off they will be.