In most seasons, Chris Davis would have been a lock for the MVP. That he came in third place last year only speaks to the greatness of Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout. Davis became baseball's preeminent slugger, belting 53 homers and driving in 138 runs, with a .286/.370/.634 slash line to boot. He was second in the majors in slugging and OPS, trailing only Cabrera in both, and first in isolated power. Davis had a season most players in the majors can only dream of in spring training. The only reason he doesn't have the most desired hardware to prove it is because he happens to play in the same league as the two best hitters on the planet.
There's always a chance a guy will regress after a 53-homer, 1.004-OPS season, if for no other reason than it's awfully hard to match those Ruthian numbers year after year. In the fifth installment of our 2014 Burning Questions series, we ask whether or not Davis can approach those numbers this year, thus justifying his spot in the first round of fantasy drafts.
The first thing to remember is that Davis has always had prodigious power. He hit 33 homers, slugged .501 and posted a .231 ISO with the Orioles in 2012. Going back to 2009 with the Rangers, the only other season in which he had more than 400 plate appearances at the major league level, he had 21 bombs and slugged .442 with a .205 ISO. It's clear: The power has always been there, and will be just as present this year. What turned Davis into an MVP candidate last year was the regularity with which he hit homers, a double-digit walk rate that drove his OBP into the top 25 in the majors and a career-high .286 batting average. Can he replicate each of those in 2014?
Let's start with the homers. There's a difference between being a power threat and hitting 53 bombs. If Davis were merely a 30-35-homer guy, surely it would show up in the way he left the yard last year. He'd be pull heavy or he'd only do damage on pitches on a certain side of the plate. That, however, was not the case.
Twenty-three of Davis' jacks last year went to left, left-center or straightaway center, as you can see in his spray chart, via Brooks Baseball. Taking a look at his ISO by zone, we see a hitter who was dangerous no matter where a pitcher chose to attack him. When he was able to get his hands extended, he essentially became Barry Bonds, posting an .805 ISO on pitches outside and belt high and .583 outside and knee high. He wasn't nearly as deadly against pitches on the inner third, but he still put up a .342 ISO in the inside, belt-high zone and .382 in the inside, knee-high zone.
Pitch selection didn't make much of a difference either. Here's a chart of Davis' performance against all types of pitches he faced last year. His worst slugging percentage by pitch was .503 against four-seam fastballs. On the other end, he slugged .885 against changeups and .838 on sliders. Quite simply, there wasn't any reliable way to attack Davis.
Unsurprisingly, Davis put up a career-best 10.7 percent walk rate in the same year that he became the league's most intimidating power hitter. In the first half, when teams still doubted if he was for real or not, his walk rate was 9.7 percent. Having proved his legitimacy over the season's first three months, it rose to 12.1 percent after the All-Star break. Pitchers will likely treat Davis this year with the same caution they did for most of the second half of last season. That should again result in a top-30 OBP in the league.
Finally, we come to the issue of batting average. This is the hardest case to make and the area in which the baseball world is rightly the most dubious. Before last year, Davis' best batting average in a season in which he qualified for the batting title was .270 in 2012. He also had a .336 BABIP last season, which could suggest good fortune. We can dispel that notion first by pointing to his 21.9 percent line-drive rate. We've also seen that, at a certain point, high BABIP becomes a skill. Davis' BABIP in 2012 was .335, and in '09, again the only other season in which he amassed at least 400 plate appearances, it was .324. That all points to Davis being able to regularly rack up a higher-than-average BABIP.
Furthermore, Davis really started using the entire baseball field for the first time last year, and that changes everything for a hitter. Teams still employ a shift against him, but he's willing to make them pay for it. If you take another look at Davis' spray chart, you see a guy who is clearly willing to use all fields. Twenty-nine of his 71 singles and 18 of his 42 doubles were to center, left-center or left. He's not just a pull-happy slugger. He's a hitter in every sense of the word.
Of course, BABIP only includes balls that are in play. Davis had 53 hits last season that left the field of play. Even if his BABIP comes down some this season, if we trust in his power, we can count on him to boost his batting average with, at minimum, 40 hits that sail over the fences.
Davis had a transformative season in 2013, morphing from a power hitter who could be attacked with the right mix to a truly dangerous hitting machine that is liable to hurt you no matter what you throw up there. He's set to build on that in 2014. Davis deserves his spot in the first round of fantasy drafts. In fact, I wouldn't let him get past the fifth overall pick.
MORE BURNING QUESTIONS:
• Part I: Can Starlin Castro bounce back in 2014?
• Part II: Is Masahiro Tanaka a worthwhile risk for owners?
• Part III: Should Doug Fister be considered a top pitcher?
• Part IV: Is Eric Hosmer a top-10 first baseman?
• Part V: How will Chris Davis follow up his successful 2013?
• Part VI: Will Brandon Phillips rack up 100+ RBI again?
• Part VII: What can owners expect from Josh Donaldson?
• Part VIII: Is Hanley Ramirez worth the risk of injury?
• Part IX: Can Josh Hamilton rediscover his power stroke?
• Part X: How should owners value Javier Baez, George Springer?