Will fantasy baseball owners see the good Chris Davis or the bad Chris Davis in the 2016 season? If the Orioles’ first baseman can remain healthy and get his pull-driven rate under control, then his owners should be pleased.
Fantasy baseball season is nearly here, so to kick-start your 2016 draft prep, SI.com’s fantasy baseball expert Michael Beller will give a snapshot of certain players who may not necessarily be a breakout, a sleeper or a bust (all of which we’ll preview in the upcoming weeks), but could still prove influential this season.
The player: Chris Davis, 1B/OF, Orioles
• The 2015 stats: 670 plate appearances, .262/.361/.562, 47 homers, 117 RBI, 31 doubles, 31% K%, 12.5% BB%, . 300 ISO, 147 wRC+
• The three-year sample (per 162 games): 677 plate appearances, .252/.347/.544, 42 homers, 119 RBI, 33 doubles
• The SI rank: No. 30 overall, No. 7 1B, No. 13 OF
• The consensus rank (FantasyPros): No. 45 overall, No. 8 1B, No. 13 OF
• The skinny: In 2013, Chris Davis was very good. He hit a .286/.370/.634 to go along with a league-leading 53 homers and 138 RBI. He might have won an MVP award, if not for sharing a league with Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera—who happened to win the first Triple Crown in 46 years.
In 2014, Chris Davis was very bad. His strikeout rate caught up with him, he had a .242 BABIP and he traded too many fly balls for ground balls. The result? He hit a pathetic .196/.300/.404 with just 26 home runs and a .209 isolated slugging percentage, which is terrible by his standards. Given his average draft position, a lot of his owners were near the bottom of their league’s standings.
In 2015, Chris Davis was very good again. His slash line bounced back to .262/.361/.562, he belted 47 home runs, which again led the majors, and he drove in 117 runs in the middle of Baltimore’s order. Sure, he struck out 208 times, good for 31% of his plate appearances, but he also drew 84 walks, got his ground ball to fly ball ratio back in order, and racked up 5.2 offensive bWAR, good for 14th among hitters.
In 2016, will we get the good Chris Davis or the bad Chris Davis? The answer could very well make or break the season of anyone who drafts him. The good version isn’t likely to be the MVP candidate he was in ’13, but could very well push 50 home runs while providing neutral batting average and plus OBP. The bad one, on the other hand, could completely undermine a team.
When I went back through Davis’s peripheral stats for 2015, one number on the page was particularly glaring. Last year’s Davis resembled the ’13 version in so many ways, but he was dramatically different in this one area. It immediately reminded me of something I wrote about Davis before the ’14 season.
Twenty-three of Davis’s jacks last year (2013) 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.
In other words, Davis was a complete hitter, using the entire field to his advantage. Davis’s pull percentage that season was 46%, while his ground-ball pull rate was 69%—especially important for a player who will see a shift in about 95% of his plate appearances. No matter how hard it’s hit, a ball hit into a shift needs to find an elusive hole or clear the outfielder’s head altogether. In 2013, Davis kept the number of balls he hit into the shift to a minimum.
Over the last two seasons, Davis still hasn’t had much trouble clearing the fences to the opposite field or straightaway center, with 20 of his 73 homers over the last two seasons going in those directions. But an issue that arose last season: Davis is pulling the ball more than ever. His pull rate climbed to 51% in 2014, and last year, it was all the way up at 56%, with 79% of his ground balls going to the pull side. To be fair, all the pulling didn’t hurt Davis last season—he was nearly as good as he was in his superlative 2013 season. If he approaches the 30% HR/FB ratio he had in both of his great campaigns, he’s still going to be plenty valuable in all fantasy formats.
The issue, however, is all those ground balls and line drives hit right into the teeth of a shift. Davis’s owners last season certainly weren’t complaining, but his batting average fell by 22 points compared with 2013, while he lost more than 70 points from his slugging percentage. This was despite the fact that he had a higher line-drive rate in ’15 by three percentage points, with statistically insignificant differences in ground-ball rate (32.4% in ’13 vs. 31.8%), fly-ball rate (45.7% vs. 43.5%), popup rate (3.9% vs. 3.8%) and, as we stated above, HR/FB ratio (29.6% vs. 29.4%).
In fact, Davis’ batted-ball rates translate to a higher than expected BABIP and xBABIP last year than in 2013. The slugger had a .326 xBABIP in 2013, which rose to .331 last season. In actuality, his ’13 BABIP was .336, while it was .319 in ’15. We can say with a good degree of certainty that his increased pull rate was largely responsible.
Let’s not lose sight of what makes Davis such a valuable fantasy commodity. If he remains healthy and can match the HR/FB ratios he posted in 2013 and ’15, his owners will be happy with a .250 batting average because he will be pushing the 50-homer mark for the third time in four years. If that comes down, however, and his pull-driven rate declines continue unabated, we could see him backslide yet again in an even year.
The best-case scenario: Davis corrects some of his pull issues while remaining one of the game’s preeminent mashers. His rates remain steady at the .265/.365/.565 levels, and he hits 50 homers while driving in 120 runs.
The worst-case scenario: More of Davis’s fly balls remain in the yard, and his search for more power exacerbates his pull issues. His rates plummet to the .245/.335/.495 neighborhood, and he struggles to reach 35 homers.