In the past I’ve written on a handful of occasions about how sometimes I like to just get lost playing with Barry Bonds‘ statistics. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate Bonds’ performances at the time — it’s that I think it can take years to appreciate what he did fully. One could make it his life’s pursuit to arrive at a true understanding and appreciation of Bonds’ statistical record. There were good players, and there were great players, and then there was Barry Bonds, who occupied his own level. Sure, maybe he only got up there with the help of a biochemical jetpack, but lots of people were using the machinery and couldn’t get far off the ground. If you just want to look at numbers, Bonds’ are the best to look at, because they’re straight-up absurd.
Given what Bonds accomplished, then, one has to be careful not to be too casual about drawing comparisons. There is no more flattering offensive comp, so few will ever exceed the threshold of acceptability. But Chris Davis is, if nothing else, giving it his best try. What follows is a comparison between Davis and Bonds, and the frightening thing is I don’t think it’s a stretch. This isn’t a thing one notes lightly.
Generally, the top of any leaderboard will feature a competition between a handful of players. Players who are the best at that particular skill. For example, right now, Carlos Gomez has nine triples. But Jean Segura and Starling Marte have eight triples, and Jacoby Ellsbury and Denard Span have seven. These are some of baseball’s premier triples-hitters, and while they’re all probably great at hitting triples, they’re not exceptionally great. They’re similarly great, which I don’t mean as a slight; it’s just the reality.
It’s hard to be similarly great at something. Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado are similarly great defensive third basemen. They’re both incredible. Of course, it’s harder still to be exceptionally great at something, because this is a league of the world’s best baseball players. You have to have standout skills to be eligible for participation in the first place. Major League Baseball is selective for the best. The players who’re great at something are the best of the best. The players who’re exceptionally great are the best of the best of the best, and this is where we can find Chris Davis, at least in one category.
Isolated slugging is a simple statistic, because its two components — slugging percentage and batting average — are simple statistics. ISO is just SLG – BA, and right now, Chris Davis leads baseball at .396. The league average is .148. Among qualified players, Carlos Gonzalez is in second at .308, and Miguel Cabrera is in third at .307. In other words, Davis presently has a lead of 88 points.
For the sake of comparison, last year Josh Hamilton finished as the league leader, at .292. He beat Cabrera and Edwin Encarnacion by 15 points. The year before, Jose Bautista was the league leader, at .306. He beat Curtis Granderson by 16 points. Usually, the top of the ISO leaderboard is competitive between elite-level sluggers, but right now Davis is by himself. For Davis’ ISO to drop from .396 to .308, he’d have to go hitless in his next 85 at-bats. Not only is Davis, right now, baseball’s best power hitter — it isn’t even arguable.
I looked at the window between 1950-2013, and identified the biggest single-season differences between first and second place in ISO among qualified hitters. Understanding that 2013 is only half over, here’s the top ten:
Davis’ 88-point lead would rank fourth-biggest in what one might consider recent baseball history. Just ahead of him is Barry Bonds, and just behind him is Mark McGwire. McGwire was an exceptional player before Bonds was an exceptional player in the same category, and now Davis is wedging himself in, as a less-recognizable but equally-effective slugger of baseballs. Right now, in terms of isolated slugging, Chris Davis is the best of the best of the best.
He’s so consistently doing so much good for the Orioles that Orioles relievers have to pay vigilant attention, lest they be broken:
Because the season’s half over, and not all the way over, we have to consider what could happen from this point forward. When dealing with rate statistics, it doesn’t make sense to say a guy is on pace for X — he’ll be on pace for the same rate he has today. Instead of figuring out what a guy’s on pace for, it’s smarter to examine the projections. Here, we have both ZiPS and Steamer projections of end-of-season numbers. ZiPS thinks Davis will end up with a 44-point ISO lead over Cabrera. Steamer thinks the difference will be 51 points. Big gaps, both of them, but smaller gaps. It’s perfectly reasonable of the systems, because Davis has blown away his track record.
Yet, last September, Davis’ ISO was .340. He’s projected the rest of the way in the mid-.200s, and if you think Davis has just reached a new level of contact consistency, then the track record means less and the recent performance means more. The recent performance is exceptional, as Davis owns the ISO of Justin Upton and Prince Fielder, summed together. Davis has shown no hint of slowing down as he’s already two away from matching last year’s home-run total. He’s maybe the biggest reason the Orioles are where they are.
From the start of his professional career, Chris Davis had the potential to be maybe the greatest power hitter in baseball. Lots of players have that kind of potential, and almost every time, they end up with too many holes and they fall well short of their ceilings. Davis is reaching his ceiling, and he’s been up there long enough to paint a pretty picture. This season is looking a lot like Chris Davis’ Sistine Chapel.
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