Braves Provide Preview of How to Approach Ike Davis

This past Tuesday on MLB Network’s Clubhouse Confidential, I predicted that Mets first basemen Ike Davis would be the breakout player in MLB this coming season. Yes, it was a bit of a homer pick, but I had solid reasoning to back it up. In his first 754 plate appearances in the big leagues, Davis put up an OBP of .355, a SLG of .457, and a wOBA of .352 all while playing in the pitcher-friendly Citi Field. That translates to a 121 wRC+, not bad considering only six other players 24 years old or younger have ever matched or exceeded that total over their first 800 plate appearances.

While watching Davis go 0-for-4 with two strike outs in yesterday’s opener I noticed something interesting: the Braves only threw Davis one fastball out of 18 total pitches. Not only that, but 41% of those pitches where thrown low and away, with Davis striking out twice on pitches in that area.

We can’t read too much into performance metrics in the early part of the season, especially after the first game, but the strategy executed by the Braves yesterday is consistent with the book on Ike, and may have provided a preview of what the young slugger will see throughout the year.

After a strong rookie campaign in 2010, Davis came out of the gate like a beast in 2011, putting up a triple slash of .337/.414/.660 and a wOBA of .426 through April. Davis cooled off a bit in May, but finished the year with a line of .302/.383/.543 and a wOBA of .391.

Davis only last 149 plate appearances before going down with an ankle injury, but there did appear to be some changes in his approach and performance at the plate.

First, Davis increased his effectiveness on balls down the middle and down and in compared to 2010. The charts below show the change in Davis’ wOBA per pitch (2011 minus 2010), and you can see how Davis punished balls down the middle of the plate while also improving on balls down and inside.

Second, while Davis didn’t offer at pitches much more than in 2010, he did become more aggressive at pitches across the zone that were belt-high or higher. The one zone where his swing patter barely changed? Low and away. Davis swung at pitches in that location almost 25% of the time. This also happens to be the zone where pitchers threw Davis the most pitches and also increased the most from 2010:

Throwing a power hitter like Davis a significant number of pitches down and away is not odd. However, the problem for Davis is that he often misses at those pitches when he does offer at them. Davis had a 40% whiff rate on pitches down and away in 2011, a roughly 5% increase from 2010. There is no other zone where Davis offers at and misses more pitches.

If pitchers can get Ike to bite on pitches low and away at the same rate in 2012, it will be difficult for him to have that breakout season I predicted (and, as a Mets fan, so desperately want to see). Balls low and away are more likely to be taken for balls, so there is some advantage to the hitter if pitches decide to throw there. But not if the hitter offers at those pitches 25% of the time considering if they do make contact, there isn’t much to be gained.

This is true for Davis. Below we see Davis’ wOBA per pitch from 2011 and 2010. Pitches low and away represent the second lowest wOBA per pitch of any zone. Not only that, but the positive value he does get is simply because, if taken, those pitches won’t be strikes. When Davis has made contact he’s only managed a handful of singles.

It’s clear Atlanta had a game plan yesterday, and they executed well on it. Braves pitchers pounded Davis down and away and he either struck out or made very weak contact on those pitches. Atlanta played the odds, knowing that even if Davis took some of those pitches for balls they would gain the overall advantage, since Davis is prone to swinging and either missing or making weak contact. Atlanta didn’t devise some new approach to Ike, but what they did is likely to be the approach by most opposing teams this year.

If Davis does not adjust, it will be a long season for him. He has tremendous power and, I believe, the ability to become one of the most feared sluggers in the National League. But that won’t happen if pitchers know they can live down and away without fear of much in the way of a negative outcome. That, in my eyes, is Davis’ biggest challenge this year.

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Bill works as a consultant by day. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, consults for a Major League Baseball team, and has appeared on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential as well as several MLB-produced documentaries. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Tumblr or Twitter @BillPetti.

26 Responses to “Braves Provide Preview of How to Approach Ike Davis”

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  1. billybob says:

    SSS THIS MEANS NOTHING! I stopped reading after the first paragraph.
    (Intended parody of frequent comments I see on this blog….)

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  2. IkeDavisOwner says:

    A team pitches low and away to a feared hitter–could there be a more obvious approach less in need of such lengthy Fangraphs analysis?

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  3. mikesavino85 says:

    Is Ike Davis’ swing percentage and miss percentage that different from most MLB players? Its my understanding that low and away pitches are difficult for everyone to hit. Is he unique in that sense? Its my understanding that the low and away pitch is what made Brandon Webb good–he hit that spot every time and no one could do anything significant with it.

    I dunno.

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    • Bill Petti says:

      You can’t get hurt down and away, and yes it is a spot that many power hitters, especially lefties, are prone to. But what makes it worse for Davis is that he offers so much at those pitches and fails to make contact so much, and so far hasn’t made an adjustment. If he is going to break out, he’ll need to, since teams are likely to exploit it as much as possible.

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  4. Dave Scott says:

    Enjoyed the article; didn’t enjoy the typos.

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  5. IkeDavisOwner says:

    Bill, makes sense, I guess the way you wrote it made it seem like the Braves were on to some new approach when it’s one of the most basic pitching strategies. Regarding those graphs you have in your comment, they appear to be the same, and my interpretation is they just show that Ike is an inferior hitter in most regards to the comp, which is not surprising given the comp…

    I would be curious to see some analysis about what types of pitches are easiest for players to learn to lay off. So, when we look at developing hitters that have the greatest improvement in BB% (or whatever other patience peripheral you want to use), do we notice it’s across-the-board patience or, for example, are low-and-away pitches the easiest to learn to take? (My hunch would be they are).

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  6. vivalajeter says:

    There’s one part that I don’t get (maybe I’m missing something obvious here). They seemed to pitch him low/outside more in 2011 than they did in 2010. He swung more and whiffed more in 2011 than 2010. But he was a much better hitter in 2011 than 2010. So it seems like teams tried using this strategy against him last year, but he was still very productive.

    It would be better if he could lay off the pitch – but the strategy didn’t seem to hurt him last year.

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    • Bill Petti says:

      Yes and no. Davis only lasted ~150 PAs and was already seeing adjustments in May to his hot start. If he maintains the change in production on pitches inside and down the middle, then you might be right.

      If teams substantially increase pitches in that zone, however (it was only 3% YOY), then my guess would be it would cause a negative impact if he doesn’t adjust.

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      • TerrysKids says:

        Ike has a good enough eye that I trust he’ll make any necessary adjustments (i’m not sure any adjustments are necessary).

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  7. Snack says:

    The braves pitch everyone low and away, Ike Davis is just the most recent bum to fall victim to the obvious. I guess we can credit Leo Mazzone for this overly obvious trend/sarcasm

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    • Astromets says:

      This is what I was thinking. Plus, Ike has had a lot of trouble against Hanson specifically and told Ted Berg after the game that lack of fastballs, down-away approach is just how Hanson comes at him.

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  8. dave g. says:

    Interesting, as a Mets fan, I hope no scouts are reading this. I could be wrong, but Davis’ hitch in his swing looks even more pronounced to me this year as well. I worry he may take some time to get it going this year.

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  9. monkey business says:

    “homer pick”? “offer at”? These are not in the saber library.

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  10. Joe says:

    Great analysis. Given the tendency to stay away from power hitters as others have mentioned, the strategy doesn’t seem novel, but I think the difference is that the Braves took a much harder line in the approach. A more typical approach is to mix in a fastball inside to establish some “room” in the zone, or fastball up in the zone for the strikeout pitch after you’ve got the batter focused on the low and away spot, for example. However, it seems the Braves chucked all that out the window and committed to stay away from Ike.

    When you combined this analysis with Ike’s hit tracker stats, the Braves may be on to something; of his 26 HR in 2010-2011, only 4 were above 90 degrees (i.e. left of center), and only 1 above 100 degrees, or a true opposite field homer. There are definitely guys that are pull hitters with big HR numbers (i.e. Bautista, Granderson), but as mentioned, they’ve learned to take walks on that outside pitch or deal with Ks/low AVG.

    In today’s game, I guarantee teams will have this info and it could be rough going for Ike until he can adjust.

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  11. matt says:

    I would love to look at a comparison between Ike and Freddie Freeman after the season on this. Freeman appears to be the opposite he crushes ipitches down and away. I think all of his homers during spring training were opposite field. I bet he gets tied up inside easier thou though.

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  12. Soma Holiday says:

    You can’t possibly be a Mets fan writing this 3 ABs into the season.

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  13. IkeDavisOwner says:

    Bill, will look out for more articles on the topic, thanks!

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  14. BARVES says:

    Nice analysis. Glad to see my Braves do at least one thing right through two games. Hope Davis turns it around though because he’s on my fantasy team.

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  15. Dan in Philly says:

    PitchFx has completely revolutionized the way pitchers and pitching coaches approach the game, and is I think quite likely the reason for the very low levels of offense we are seeing over the past few years. Even averge pitchers know exactly what pitch they can throw to even the best hitters to increase the liklihood of their success to a degree impossible even 5 years ago.

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  16. shibboleth says:

    Great analysis. As an Ike fan, I hope that what we saw from him this past weekend was merely the result of a delayed spring training (valley fever and all that).

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  17. Joel says:

    Watching Davis play through the rest of that series, and now tonight against the Nats, it appears that is the approach everyone’s using against him. And he did not look happy on Saturday and Sunday.

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  18. Dan the Mets Fan says:

    Ike figured out their plan and made the adjustment last night: That was an encouraging at bat.

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