All the Old Bay Seasoning that has ever been produced could not fill the gulf between 2013 Chris Davis and 2014 Chris Davis. The former belted 53 homers, posted a 1.004 OPS and, in most seasons, would have been a shoo-in for the MVP award. The latter saw his batting average plummet to .196, struck out in one-third of his at-bats and had half as many home runs and RBI as his predecessor. In 2013, Chris Davis was a fantasy stud and, given his mid-round draft-day price, was on a number of championship teams. In 2014, that same Chris Davis was a fantasy pariah and, given his inflated price because of his exploits the previous season, helped to submarine the fortunes of countless fantasy owners.
The most important phrase in the paragraph above is "same Chris Davis," because, in a lot of ways, the 2014 version of Crush was exactly the same as his superior alter ego from the year prior. Yes, his batting average fell off a cliff and he struck out more frequently, but the pop that set him apart in 2013 was still there. Now that his cost has dipped back to pre-2014 levels, Davis might be one of the biggest bargains at draft and auction tables this season.
Injuries and a suspension limited Davis to 127 games and 525 plate appearances, about 150 fewer than he had in 2013. He still managed to hit 26 homers, and he did so much in the same way he did during his superlative season. First, Davis spread the ball all over the park. Below is his home run spray chart from 2014:
That Davis can clear the fence to all fields makes him much harder to attack. Contrast that with Brian Dozier, whose power is all to his pull field, meaning if you pitch him away, you're likely keeping him in the park. Such is not the case with Davis. Check out his slugging percentage by zone for the last three seasons:
Davis certainly has the power to yank those outside pitches back to the right side with authority, but his slugging percentage is so high on balls away from him because he's willing to go up the middle and to the opposite field with them. That didn't change in 2014, despite his fantasy value going in the tank. It's unlikely to change this year, as well.
When Davis connected with the ball, he still typically barreled it up and drove it deep into the outfield. His average true home run distance, according to ESPN's hit tracker, was 401.4 feet. That was down five feet from 2013, but still good enough for the 16th longest in the majors among hitters with at least 25 homers. Baseball Heat Maps placed his average fly ball distance at 298.04 feet, ranking 21st in the league. His HR/FB ratio wasn't the video-game total of 29.6 percent from 2013, but still an elite 22.6 percent, better than everyone but Jose Abreu (26.9) and Giancarlo Stanton (25.5).
Davis morphed into a patient hitter in 2013, and his walk rate actually increased to 11.4 percent last year, helping his OBP outpace his batting average by 104 points. While that suggests he's committed to a measured approach at the plate, the bottom line is he's not going to produce a ton of fantasy value if he flirts with the Mendoza line again this season. Davis' BABIP in 2013 was .336, and in 2012 it was .335. Last year, it took a dive to .242.
If the idea to eliminate or limit defensive shifts ever gains any traction, Davis would likely be one of the happiest players in the majors. According to the 2015 Bill James Handbook, no hitter in baseball saw a shift on a greater percentage of his plate appearances than Davis. The slugger had to deal with a third infielder on the right side of second base in a whopping 95.2 percent of his trips to the plate, just a touch more than David Ortiz, Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard. His BABIP on grounders and short liners was .121 against the shift. When the defense played him straight up, it was .333.
Only time will tell if Davis has the discipline necessary to take what the defense gives him and force himself to go the other way. If he does that, the batting average will come back up. It may not be the .286 it was in 2013, but it also won't be the prohibitive .196 it was last season. What we do know: Davis is going to hit for power and take his walks. Anything less than 30 homers would be a surprise, and if he stays healthy all year, he could push 40. If I miss out on the top-five first basemen (Paul Goldschmidt, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Abreu, Anthony Rizzo and Edwin Encarnacion), I'm biding my time and trying to nab Davis at or near his 73.14 NFBC average draft position.