How Chris Davis Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Grand SalamiThe title is a misnomer: Chris Davis has always loved the long ball, and it’s always loved him back. In the minor leagues, Davis just couldn’t hit consistently enough to justify a Major League spot with the Rangers, who were one of the best offensive teams in baseball at the time. When he was given a chance to play regularly in Baltimore, Chris Davis belted 53 home runs in 162 games, more than anyone else in 2013. What changed during Davis’ age-27 season that turned him into a fairly complete power hitter instead of a one-man home run derby?

Discuss Chris Davis’ 2013 and your 2014 projections on the BSL forum.

Better Plate Discipline?

Chris Davis posted an O-Swing% of 35.6% in 2013, the second best rate of not swinging at balls in his career. The only time he had bested that was with an O-Swing% of 32.5% in 45 games with the Rangers in 2010. Davis’ 2010 line looked nothing like his 2013 line either; he batted an abysmal .192/.279/.292. It’s difficult to draw any conclusions from this comparison because 45 games is a small sample size (as is 162, for that matter), and because Davis was 24 in 2010. Davis’ 2013 O-Swing% wasn’t terribly out of line with his career rate of 38.1%. That means that Davis would take an extra 4 balls every 160 pitches outside the zone in 2013 when compared to his career. Those 4 balls could be taken at any time and not actually add up to 1BB, but the abstract comparison is worth making: his pitch selection helped Davis to walk more often in 2013, but not that much more often. The modest drop in Davis’ O-Swing% was likely helped by the fact that by April, every pitcher and his mom knew what he was capable of and started throwing him fewer pitches inside the zone. Only 41.1% of pitches thrown to Chris Davis in 2013 were in the strike zone, well below any other year that he’s played in the Majors.

Davis swung at 71.0% of pitches in the zone, just above his career average Z-Swing% of 70.6%. This is to say nothing of the pitches inside the zone that he swung at, and it’s just as important to know when to take a strike on a pitcher’s pitch as it is to take a pitch outside the zone. This figure actually represents a decline in Z-Swing% during Davis’ time with the Orioles but a small jump from his Z-Swing% in Texas. With no additional information about pitch types, this leads me to think that the O’s first told Davis to swing away when he saw a strike, then helped him refine his approach to take good strikes. Indeed, the declining rate of pitches in the zone likely led Davis to become more selective. With more pitches outside the zone coming his way, Davis could extend at-bats by taking good first and even second strikes knowing that he could wait on his pitch.

While Chris Davis’ plate discipline was better in 2013, it doesn’t account for his monster breakout year.

Better Locations to Hit?

The heat map below shows where pitches to Davis of all types passed through the strike zone:

Chris Davis pitch percentages and countsAs you can see, Davis got 320 pitches across the horizontal middle third of the zone and 306 down the middle third of the plate. He saw more pitches away and outside the zone than anywhere else, an interesting selection given his .360 average (10/27) in the zone in which he saw 167 pitches and a very low whiff rate away.

Not coincidentally, pitches in the vertical or horizontal middles of the strike zone are terrific pitches to hit:

Chris Davis zone averageChris Davis zone sluggingDavis was tremendous outside of the middle cross as well, but pitchers seemed to make it pretty easy on him. A number of strikes in the top right corner of the zone were called balls, and a number of balls outside and low were called strikes. Davis’ willingness to take or swing at those pitches, respectively, is likely a result of past calls, as his 2012 called zone looks much the same way.

He got good spots, and used his natural ability to take advantage of them. Any power hitter in the majors would love to see so many pitches come down the pipe, and it’s not unusual for a guy his size to fare better on the outer half of the plate than inside.

Better Pitches to Hit?

Chris Davis has always been aggressive on breaking balls, but actually whiffed on more breaking and offspeed pitches per swing than ever before:

Chris Davis Whiffs per SwingThe ones he did make contact with ended up going a long way. In six of the nine zones within the strike zone, Davis recorded a SLG of greater than 1.00 against offspeed and breaking pitches.

Davis’ whiff rate on breaking and offspeed pitches is high, and his whiff rate on fastballs is actually considered exceptionally high despite being much lower than against other types of pitches. Chris Davis actually hit for a lower SLG against hard pitches in most of the strike zones than against offspeed and breaking pitches.

Frankly, it didn’t matter to Davis what the pitches were in 2013. As long as they were in the middle of the zone or just outside, he was swinging for them and usually crushing them.

Good Luck and Random Chance?

As with any other statistical anomaly, at least a portion of it comes down to random chance. Chris Davis’ OPS of 1.004 was well above anything he’s ever done before, his HR/FB ratio was an incredible 22.6%, and his HR%, while ending at a lofty 7.9%, was even higher before the All Star break. Davis’ BB% was a high 10.7%, but that is likely a combination of better plate discipline and fewer pitchers wanting to throw him anything to hit.

There is reason to think that Davis’ 2013 was not so unusual, though: his LD% and K% were in line with his career averages. It’s possible that all Davis needed was a full season in the Majors to prove that he could bash consistently, but Camden Yards is not significantly more friendly to power hitters than the Ranger’s park in Arlington. His BABIP of .336 was exactly in line with his career average, not to mention that it’s easy to sustain a high BABIP when he puts every ball in play over the fence.

There will more than likely be regression in 2014, and a much thicker book on Chris Davis. He probably won’t see as many pitches in the middle of the zone, and he’ll probably continue to be tested with breaking and offspeed pitches. With such a short history of consistent play in the Majors, it’s hard to say which of Davis’ stats are quirks and which are indicative of long term trends. In a year and a half with the Orioles, Davis has shown himself to be the real deal, at least as a power hitter who can add more to the team than three true outcomes. He might come back to earth in 2014, but Chris Davis won’t swing to the other extreme.

Platoon Splits, But Not the Ones You Think

In fact, Chris Davis might be a terrific example of the next market inefficiency. His power to all fields and ability to hit singles and doubles makes him an incredibly valuable commodity in any era of baseball, but evidence suggests that extreme fly ball hitters are both rarer and faring better against all types of pitchers. The goal of stocking up on fly ball hitters is hitting more home runs, a run-scoring at bat that’s nearly impossible to defend. Davis has appeared to terrorize the Rays over the last season and a half, so I took a look at what types of starting pitchers they staffed:

David Price career GB/FB: 0.86

Jeremy Hellickson career GB/FB: 0.65

Roberto Hernandez career GB/FB: 1.40

Matt Moore career GB/FB: 0.64

Alex Cobb career GB/FV: 1.34

Chris Archer career GB/FB: 0.88

The Rays employ two extreme fly ball  starting pitchers and two  starting pitchers with moderate fly ball tendencies. It’s probably not an accident that Davis bats .407/.429/.741 against Hellickson, a righty, with a 1.169 OPS, for instance. He hasn’t fared nearly as well against lefty Matt Moore, so maybe part of it is the platoon splits that you thought it would be. Matt Moore is also young, so Davis’ sample size against him is small.

Chris Davis succeeded in 2013 thanks to elite skill, physical and mental maturity, and a lot of things going his way. Even without everything breaking in his favor, he’s in line for a strong 2014, if not a 53-homer season. Now that the Orioles have Davis on a one-year deal to avoid arbitration and with only one year of arbitration left after this, let’s hope that Davis makes as much hay in Baltimore as he can before he becomes too expensive for the Orioles.

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About the author

Patrick Dougherty   

Orioles Analyst

Patrick is the co-founder of Observational Studies, a blog focused on the analysis and economics of professional sports. The native of Carroll County graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Loyola University Maryland. Patrick works at a regional economic development and marketing firm in Baltimore, and in his free time plays lacrosse.

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