Don’t worry about Chris Davis


Davis has struggled in the early going, but it shouldn’t last. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been made of the Baltimore Orioles’ offensive struggles in 2014. They’re 16th in the majors in runs, and their peripherals suggest they should be even worse — by wRC, they’re the 17th-best offense in baseball. One Oriole in particular stands out as a disappointment: Chris Davis, who hasn’t come close to equaling his torrid 2013 start. After putting up a 167 wRC+ last year (the third-best mark in baseball), his production has declined this year, to the tune of a 119 wRC+ (only 55th in the majors). However, the underlying statistics suggest that Davis hasn’t played as poorly as one might think.

1. He’s improved his plate discipline.

When Davis broke out last year, one of the larger reasons for it was a more controlled approach at the plate. Always known as a free swinger, he finally regulated himself, and the results spoke for themselves. From 2008 to 2012, he walked in 6.5% of his plate appearances, but in 2013 he took the free pass 10.7% of the time. Not only does this represent a massive improvement, it’s also one that his peripherals support: The former time period saw him swing at 38.0% of pitches outside of the strike zone, whereas the latter saw him reduce that rate to 35.7%.

This year, Davis has taken the next step, as base on balls comprise 13.6% of his plate appearances. Again, the peripherals show that this isn’t a fluke, as he’s now swinging at 31.9% of out-of-zone pitches. Coupled with a continued, albeit marginal, decrease in strikeouts (28.4% of plate appearances in 2014, compared to 29.6% in 2013 and 31.0% prior to that), there’s a lot to be confident about vis-à-vis Davis.

2. He should accrue more hits…

So Davis has made strides when he doesn’t put the ball in play. When he does, though, his production has taken a turn for the worse: His BABIP has deflated to .301, from a .336 mark last year. Unlike his plate discipline, he possessed a high BABIP before his breakout — .335, to be exact. Over those first five years of his career, 23.2% of his balls in play were line drives, which go for hits more often than their ground- or air-based counterparts; while that number did fall to 21.9% in 2013, he still made good contact, as his well-hit average of .213 ranked 28th in the majors.

This year, Davis has probably dropped off in these categories, right? Well, not exactly. His line-drive rate has exploded to 28.0% (the fifth-best mark in baseball); moreover, as of Tuesday, he has hit the ball hard 29.1% of the time, 13th among qualified hitters. Thus far, he’s just been severely unlucky with his batted balls, and over the course of a full season, that tends to go away.

3. …as well as more extra-base hits.

Of course, Davis’s calling card will always be his godlike, effortless power. While he put up solid numbers in that regard early in his MLB tenure (.208 ISO from 2008 to 2012), his .348 ISO in 2013 dwarfed anything he had ever achieved. Now, that number has diminished to .201, right in line with his previous career norm. It might be tempting to chalk this up to regression to the mean, but that’s probably not the case.

His average fly ball distance is now 303.9 feet; while that is significantly lower than his 308.7-foot mark from last year, it’s nervertheless better than the 301.8 mark he accomplished in his first five campaigns. Furthermore, his aforementioned advancements in plate discipline mean he’s putting the ball in play more often, which in turn should mean an uptick in power. No one expects Davis to repeat that otherworldly production from last year, but we can look forward to a little more clout.

The important thing to keep in mind with Davis is that he hasn’t played that much this season: Because he missed more than two weeks with an oblique strain, he’s only accrued 169 plate appearances, lower than most other Orioles. As he plays more often, we should see a return to the mashing days of old, and the Orioles certainly wouldn’t mind that.

All data courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Heat Maps, and Mark Simon, as of Saturday, May 31st, 2014.