Could Ike Davis Be Better than We Think?

Let’s get all the Ike Davis caveats out of the way first.

He owes much of his .338/.421/.600 start to a blistering .397 batting average on balls in play. It’s not reasonable to assume that BABIP number to plummet to .300; Davis posted a .321 BABIP last year, is just starting his second big league season, and may well settle in as a true .320-, .330-, or higher BABIP guy. Still, he doesn’t have the Ichiro speed and hit placement skills to suggest he’s going to be an extreme outlier either.

He also strikes out a lot, 26.4% of the time last year, 25% of the time so far in 2011. The old stathead adage that a strikeout is scarcely worse than other kinds of outs still holds up. But a hitting profile that starts with an out via strikeout 1/4 of the time still isn’t ideal. It requires a batter to hit for power, walk a lot, or find holes in the defense (ideally all three) to still rank among the elite. Of the top 35 hitters last season (as ranked by Weighted On-Base Average), only seven struck out more than 25% of the time. In 2009, it was nine out of 35. In 2008, five out of 35. Suffice it to say, you can be a great hitter and also strike out a lot, but it’s not easy.

Most importantly, any conclusions we draw from this year come from a spectacularly small sample size. To draw any conclusions from Davis’ profile, the first four weeks of this season should count as a tiny piece of the puzzle, and no more.

With all that established, there are plenty of other things to like. Davis just turned 24, and he’s already a clearly above-average major league hitter. Of course, to be an everyday first basemen, you need to be considerably better than that.

The prospect of Davis becoming a plus offensive first baseman seemed a long shot as he came up through the Mets’ system. He hit .288/.371/.467 in just over one full season of work (182 games). Twenty-two homers in 769 plate appearances don’t point to someone who’ll one day hang with Joey Votto.

But a closer look reveals some progression in his record. In his first exposure to professional ball, Davis hit a grand total of zero homers in 239 PA as a 21-year-old in Brooklyn of the New York-Penn League. The next season, he belted 20 at Port St. Lucie and Binghamton, putting up a .226 ISO. In 2010, he followed with 19 bombs with the Mets, while playing at Citi Field, a terrible park for home run hitters (HR factor of 0.719 last year, third-lowest in the majors).

Acknowledging the big, honking small sample warning sign, the early returns this year point to potential improvements in Davis’ game. His ISO up to .263 from .176 in his rookie campaign. Though it’s still early, it may turn out that Davis’ improving power stems from a maturing approach at the plate. Most encouraging, he’s swinging at just 20.1% of pitches outside the strike zone so far this year, way down from last season’s 27.3% number. He’s also being choosier, period, going after 37.9% of pitches in 2011, vs. 41.9% in 2010. Davis is seeing more pitches in the strike zone, making contact more often, falling behind in the count less often, and swinging and missing less often. Granting that many of these measures are related to each other, this is all good stuff for a young hitter.

If he continues his skills progression, there’s precedent for something special here. Let’s go back to those minor league numbers for a second. Acknowledging that Votto began his pro career out of high school and Davis out of college (and obviously played at different levels in different parks), it’s striking how similar their aggregate minor league numbers look (.289/.386/.477 for Votto, .288/.371/.467 for Davis). Their Major League Equivalencies: .232/.304/.374 for Votto, .237/.308/.399 for Davis.

Like Davis, Votto hit for good but not great power as a rookie (at a slightly more advanced age, but he also showed good opposite field power, which can be a sign of future power development). Then, of course, Votto went bonkers, parlaying growing power, a robust walk rate and sky-high BABIPs to stardom.

The improvements Davis has shown isn’t to imply that he has an MVP (or more) waiting for him, or that one example portends a trend. Rather, it’s to note that prospects aren’t easy to peg. The vast majority perform far worse than we expect. But a few will shatter expectations. My colleague Eno Sarris once wrote that Davis “may never be a superstar, but he’ll put up good numbers.” The operative word here being “may.”

Davis will be arbitration-eligible after next season. Pre-arb contracts are all the rage in baseball, with teams offering more money up front and security through arbitration in years, often in exchange for one or more club options. The Mets would do well to let much, if not all, of this season play out before making a decision. But if Davis’ improvement persists, it might be worth exploring a relatively low-risk deal for a player with a reasonably high, and safe, floor — and just a sliver of OMGUpside.

The Mets have gone the megacontract route, with less-than-great results (the Carlos Beltran deal hasn’t been nearly as bad as most believe, though the Johan Santana deal doesn’t look all that hot right now). As the team likely bids goodbye to Jose Reyes, Jason Bay, and other high-priced vets over the next year or two, they don’t seem to have many great in-house candidates for long-term deals through prime years. Davis is one of the best bets.

The Reds waited until after Votto’s MVP season to give him a long-term deal, and could only get three years as a result. Taking the leap with Davis early could save (tens of) millions, with just a glimmer of big-time potential.




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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.


61 Responses to “Could Ike Davis Be Better than We Think?”

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  1. Worry says:

    He could be in for a breakout season, but I don’t think he’s that much ahead of Freeman or Smoak for the future.
    This article a mixture of 1 and 2?
    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/some-predictions-that-will-be-right/

    Also I’m waiting for the writers to comment on Francoeur’s current streak. (3)

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    • phoenix2042 says:

      hasn’t there already been one about francoeur having a great start? and it basically (very basically) concluded that he is learning some (loosely defined) patience and showing a little more power than expected, so he may get better than he has been, but won’t be above average.

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  2. Ryan says:

    As a Mets fan and fantasy owner, I have been very pleased with how Davis has been playing this year even hitting as low in the order he has been. Aside from LOOGYs absolutely blowing him up in later innings of games, he looks like a threat every time he’s at the plate.

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  3. ritz says:

    I think it’s also worth noting that Ike’s hand placement has changed and his swing has shortened.

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  4. Dave Cameron sucks says:

    Ike plays excellent defense(was rated as the second best defender at first behind Barton last year), is a patient hitter, that draws walks and has really good pop. I don’t think he’ll be Votto but he’ll be very, very good. He was a 3+ win player and I don’t see why he can’t be a 4.5 or even a 5 win player this year. Good analysis unlike Dave Cameron’s silly comments comparing Ike to Lyle Overbay and claiming Ike is a average defender and has average pop in his chat a few weeks ago.

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    • Powder Blues says:

      Davis vs Overbay, circa 2005

      Low HR power totals for position – check
      Inside the park power – check
      Decent/Good average – check
      Above average to great defense – check
      Solid walk totals – Check
      Disappointing vs Loogys – check
      Serviceable 1B – check

      You may not like Dave Cameron, but the comparison is spot on.

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      • dave cameron sucks says:

        is what way? ike plays excellent defense has seen his iso soar and has very raw power that he’s starting to display. he’s gonna be a 5 win player. How many times has Overbay been a five war player? ike is gonna be a 25-30 homer hitter with potential for more if changes to the dimensions are made.

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      • ted says:

        ike hits moon shots to say he has in the ballpark power is silly and all scouting reports say he has big power potential. ike did hit lefties last year. The guy is gonna be far better than overbay ever dreams of being.

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      • psiogen says:

        Ike did those things at age 23, just entering his prime years. When Overbay was 23, he was toiling in the minors, 4 years away from his first full major league season. So no, I don’t think the comparison is entirely apt.

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      • Sean says:

        Overbay was in his age 28 season during 2005, and Overbay’s highest HR total in a season was 22 Davis hit 19 HR as a 23 year old rookie in a tough hitters park.

        Davis also hits bombs. His average true distance on HRs this year is 421 feet, and last year it was 415. Overbay was consistently in the high 390/low 400 range.

        I don’t think you’re giving Ike’s power enough credit, and it’s still to early to make a call about his low power/HR/stats against Loogys.

        I think the point of this article is that while Davis could very well be the next Lyle Overbay, there’s a chance that he could develop into something much better, and the numbers back it up. I’ll give Davis the benefit of being much younger than Overbay in 2005.

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      • amets says:

        what the heck is inside the park power? ike hits monster shots like few others

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      • Patrick says:

        Hey @dave cameron sucks

        I agree with you Ike is very likely better than Overbay, but the next time Davis needs the walls moved in at Citi Field will be the first. That yard has not held anything he has hit in.

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  5. Dave Cameron sucks says:

    I doubt the Mets will be able to trade Bay. They are stuck with the contract, and that goes double for Johan’s contract. I’m hoping and praying they find a way to keep Reyes.

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  6. tom says:

    Dave Cameron also once said that every team has a prospect like Jon Lester and that he wouldn’t deal Jeremy Reed for him.

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    • Sean says:

      Ha! Remember that time that one guy was wrong about a prospect? What an idiot.

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    • The Ancient Mariner says:

      As usual, context matters. Go take a look.

      When you read that, bear in mind a couple things. First, at that point Reed was 24 years old, had played 159 games at the major-league level, and in that season’s worth of work had accumulated 3.0 fWAR; he’d played exclusively CF in 2005 and done a reasonable job out there.

      Second, Lester and Papelbon both hit their best-case scenaria, or pretty close, while the Mariner arms Dave mentions there all flamed out. Obviously, in hindsight, things look different — but there was no solid reason to know at that time that this would be how things would turn out. Give me Nageotte/Lester/Papelbon ca. 2004 all over again and tell me to pick one, I’d have picked Nageotte then and I’d still pick him now.

      Third, on the list of things that went massively, unpredictably wrong, you can also include the rest of Reed’s career. In a half-season in 2006, his BB% dropped from 8.8% to 4.8%, and his BABIP dropped from a reasonable .293 to an unsustainably low .226 — the BABIP recovered in later years, but his walk rate never really did — and his glove went south; in consequence, he went from being a 2-3 WAR player to replacement level. Yes, some regression was expected with his glove; but normally, you’d look for a 24-year-old to improve with the bat, not fall apart. As Dave wrote at the time,

      “We’ve discussed Reed to death around here. Yes, he had a poor rookie season with the bat, though his glove appeared to be better than most expected. However, he’s shown promise as a hitter, and there’s no reason to write off his offensive abilities after just 500 at-bats. All along, we’ve projected Reed as a .290/.370/.450 guy in his prime, and while he probably won’t hit that well in 2006, he’s a pretty good bet to improve, and he has a chance to imporve significantly. He also will make the league minimum next year.”

      Put it this way. Your team has a 24-year-old outfielder, maybe not a CF for the long term but he handled it competently this season, who didn’t hit all that well this year but looks like he ought to be a league-average hitter pretty soon; if he can stick in center and hits his ceiling with the bat, maybe at his peak he’s in the ASG discussion. He’s making the minimum. You have no one in the farm system or on the bench who is really worthy of a starting spot. You have the chance to deal him for, say, Zach Britton, or Mike Minor. Do you do it? More to the point, do you consider it a no-brainer?

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  7. Zack says:

    I always thought Davis would be a nice player at a very strong offensive position. He’s not Pujols, Howard, Votto, or Fielder, but he’s a good option at first base given his age. He’s going to continue to mature and get better. Another thing to consider when comparing Votto and Davis is that Votto plays in Cincy where they have a very small park, Davis the opposite.

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  8. JDSussman says:

    This is a good piece, especially the first paragraph. However, I take issue with not mentioning any of Ike’s scouting reports and totally relying on stats. Power was always to be expected from Ike. The issues with future performance were his a) ability, or lack there of, to hit lefties in the minors and b) as you mention, his strike outs and contact ability.

    Again overall, great piece. Very fair write up. Personally, I can see a .280/370/.500+ being the norm for Ike. With his defense, that is an excellent player. Mets fans should be excited.

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    • jerry says:

      nice response so your not agreeing with Dave Cameron’s suggestion in his April 13th chat that Davis is another Lyle Overbay huh?

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      • JDSussman says:

        I didn’t read the chat. Nor am I aware of what context he made the comment in. I respect Dave greatly, but If Dave suggested that, he has seen Davis swing often enough.

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      • Sean says:

        From the 4/13/11 Chat (http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/fangraphs-chat-41311/)

        Dave Cameron:
        I haven’t seen anything to suggest that my assessment of him as a guy who is okay-at-everything-and-great-at-nothing is wrong. He walks some, hits for some power, strikes out some, and plays okay defense. That’s Lyle Overbay.

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      • JDSussman says:

        Sean, that seems like an off-the-cuff response, so I’m hesitant to jump down Dave’s throat like many here have.

        However, clearly, the remark about his defense is way off. Okay at everything? Outside of defense, I can buy that – if Dave is comparing Davis to first basemen. I would argue that the analysis may be more accurate than the conclusion.

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      • Sean says:

        Oh, I completely agree it’s off the cuff, and probably intended to irritate Mets fans (guilty!) more than it is a serious attempt at analysis, as Jonah provided above. But it is interesting that one writer sees Joey Votto and another sees Lyle Overbay in projecting Ike’s future. That’s a pretty wide range,

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      • Preston says:

        While I don’t like the Lyle Overbay comparison (Ike is younger and more talented) I see Dave’s point. It’s really hard to be an elite 1B, the offensive standard is so high. If Ike Davis was a below average defensive 3B or RF everyone would be salivating over him. But even as a really good defensive 1B it’s just going to be hard to be considered one of the best. I mean Mark Teixeira “struggled” to a .256/.366/.481 line a year ago, simarlarly Prince Fielder had a “disappointing” .261/.401/.471 line. Both these guys are so good at taking pitches and have so much raw power that even when they struggle they put up big numbers. The problem is I don’t see Ike being that dominant. He doesn’t seem like a guy who could lead the league in walks, win a batting title or hit 50 hrs. So if he’s going to be a great player, instead of a very good one, it’s going to be based on him consistently performing near his ceiling. There are guys who do that over their careers, but it is impossible to predict.

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      • JDSussman says:

        Personally, I don’t see Votto at all.

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      • Mike L says:

        Ha. I’m the one that asked that question.

        I thought the comparison was pretty ridiculous.

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    • Scott says:

      Just a note, power was not expected from Davis, expecting power is dangerous (see Kotchman, Casey and Burroughs, Sean) but Ike has a ton of potential for power cause of his size and swing. The thing is that in order to truly tap into he’d need to become a Ryan Howard type. Swing hard and often.

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  9. marcusallan says:

    Good point about votto playing in cincy. Not comparing him to votto, but just saying, some of those moonshots ike hits to the shea bridge in right center? i’m guessing not many of votto’s bombs were of that variety.

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  10. Craig Glaser says:

    Hey Jonah, while I agree with the spirit of the piece, I think one paragraph needs to be given a proper baseline.

    The fact that only 7 of the top 35 hitters last year struck out 25% of the time or more may sound like quite quite a low % (20%) but if you expand this out to qualified hitters you find that 25 of 149 (~17%) struck out 25% of the time or more. I haven’t looked back but I’m guessing the rates don’t fluctuate wildly by year and stay approximately the same.

    This says to me that once you’ve achieved full time playing status striking out 25% of the time or more is not much of a factor in determining whether you’re a top 35 hitter.

    Now it might be that guys who strike out that much have a harder time becoming full time/qualified hitters but that would require more research and given that Ike has already reached that level (though of course he has to stay there) it seems less pertinent.

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  11. Mike says:

    And of the top 35 in WOBA last year only 6 struck out less that 15% of the time. “Suffice it to say, you can be a great hitter and also strike out” not “a lot, but it’s not easy.” Or maybe that’s not really conclusive

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  12. NM says:

    I think the Overbay comparison was ‘okay’ since they profile similarly with the bat, but I think Ike is a much better defender, and then there is the whole fact that Ike has already topped, in his rookie season no less, any season Overbay had. I think the Overbay comp fits more as Davis’ floor.

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    • NM says:

      I should add that I think Davis has good power potential, even though his ISO was merely average-ish last season. As a Mets fan I can tell you the guy is capable of hitting some moonshots that make even Citi Field look small.

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  13. vivalajeter says:

    Here’s what I don’t get about Ike: He has a decent contact rate, and he hits some absolute BOMBS. Many of his HRs are way beyond the fence. So why doesn’t he hit more HRs? I’ve seen predictions that he may not ever hit more than 30 HRs in a season. How can someone make good contact and have such great raw power, but not be capable of hitting 40 dongs a year?

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    • astromets says:

      i wouldn’t buy into those profiles of Ike never hitting that many HR’s. He is on pace to hit 30 this year, why cant he? One main reason people may worry that is because he does play at Citi-field and so he won’t be getting any ‘cheap’ HR’s – McGuire always hit bombs, but everyone will remember that 62nd HR that barely cleared the fence; if Ike hits a ball the same distance at Citi, at best it is off the wall

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  14. DJLetz says:

    Is there any correlation between home-run-power development as a player ages and length of home runs hit? Ike’s only hit 23 home runs in his season’s worth of games, but all but three have been 395ft.+, with a handful over 450 ft.–but hittracker lists lots of them as “Just Enoughs” because most have been either to dead-center or to the right-center gap (which is even deeper at Citi). Does this suggest that if he learns to pull more that more of his fly balls will sail around the (much more reasonable) left-field pole and the home run totals will climb?

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  15. wobatus says:

    If you look at the comment section to this Ike article from last April both Acerimusdux points out that Ike actually hit lefties quite well in the upper minors (.286/.357/.432 in a small sample in AA/AAA). In fact he hit them better than Smoak (albeit a switch-hitter and I’d still think advantage Smoak overall), Alonso and Morrison, guys who got more play than Ike did, but most scouts said he had plus raw power.

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/a-spike-in-ikes-value/

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  16. lonewolf371 says:

    No reason to bash a ton on Dave Cameron, folks. We all descend into hyperbole at times. To be honest, Tossing .370/.500 predictions out there right now can be going in the opposite direction too much.

    I have Ike on my fantasy team and I loved him during preseason. I think any comparisons to Joey Votto are probably stretching it, but I also think Davis has a good shot at being a plus bat. .270/.350/.480 seems reasonable, with something like .270/.370/.500 probably being his peak, along with 25-30 HR power.

    However, as noted in the article, he did post a ridiculous ISO and BABIP over his last 275 PAs in the minors…

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    • BlackOps says:

      He’s now a career .275/.361/.461 hitter in the majors. I’d say it’s beyond “reasonable” to guess .270/.350/.480 in his prime.

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  17. acerimusdux says:

    1. Dave Cameron deserves a bit of ribbing maybe, for the Overbay comp, but he is one of the best writers/analysts in the blogoshpere. He just isn’t the best guy on prospects.

    2. Most of the people who under-rated Davis weren’t paying enough attention to the tools and scouting. Go back to the 2008 raft, loaded with 1B prospects, and Davis had arguably as high a ceiling as any of them. The combination of outstanding athleticism, outstanding raw power, and really strong hands and wrists gave him the tools to be really good.

    3. Many of the other guys who rated highly alongside Davis in that draft were rated there because they were more polished, they had better swings at that time. I disagree a bit about Davis only recently shortening his swing; he has always had the ability to shorten his swing and hit for average when needed. Coming out of college, the problem was that he had more of a metal bat swing, where with the metal bats he could shorten up and pretty much use his very strong hands and wrists, and outstanding bat control, to even slap doubles and HRs. At times he even seemed to hit off the front foot and be able to do that.

    4. The improvements in approach and swing mechanics which were critical in better translating the raw power to wood bats and pro-ball involved things like better balance, incorporating the lower half more, and letting the ball travel deeper into the hitting zone.

    5. Of course the difficultly in prospecting is, not everyone who has the tools and athleticism is going to be able to translate that into being able to hit. If a guy has the tools, you also want to see performance, and maybe even more important, to see progress. But it appears that Ike may possibly still be improving. The Adam Laroche/Lyle Overbay type comps never took much account of tools. Watch the Mets/National series going on now, and see both Davis and LaRoche, and the difference in tools and upside potential should be obvious.

    6. On strikeouts, they don’t matter as much once you get to MLB, but they can be an indicator of risk for prospects. But power hitters always strike out a lot more; every hitter has some ability to trade power for contact, and hitters will always have some adjustment period vs. a new level of pitching. Looking at strikeout rates alone just doesn’t tell you enough. I would love to see more use of extra base power relative to strikeouts. Actually (TB-H)/SO works quite well for this. For an age appropriate prospect in AA (say 22) for example, a rate of over 1.0 would give you a much lower bust potential than a rate under 0.80.

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  18. astromets says:

    lots of DC talk in comments, so if someone mentioned this than sorry. But you barely discuss what has been the huge difference for Ike this year and last, BABIP, you just conclude he isn’t likely a high BABIP guy because of speed and hit placement skills (?). Ike has a full season of minor league data with a BABIP over .350 because he is a line drive hitter. Higher LD % correlates with higher BABIP, and he increased his LD % from 16->21 % this year, while decreasing his GB % almost the same amount. His k’s have improved only marginally, his bb’s have stayed constant, he is just hitting xbh at an improved rate – but isn’t this something we expect as a player learns this league?

    Look at Votto, he had a nearly .050 bump in BABIP from his rookie to sophomore year after a minor league track record of higher BABIPs. Votto isn’t a fast runner or a hitter who needs to aim for holes, he is exactly like Ike.

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    • Scott says:

      Sample size. Davis has only batted about 70 balls into play, if his next 10 batted balls are grounders that’s 2 percentage point falls for him there. As of now on his career Davis has been a 17% line drive hitter. His estimated BABIP is around .290. he’s .045 better than that so yes he’s lucky.

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  19. Scott says:

    Davis has a huge hole in his swing, I stand by my Adam LaRoche with better D and walks prediction. Eventually guys will find the hole in his swing and good pitchers will kill him.

    Also, last season Davis started they year off smoking hot, before living in the .700-.800 OPS range til September.

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    • ritz says:

      Pitchers exploited him mid-season last year and he made adjustments and finished the year strong.

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      • Scott says:

        I don’t consider a strong September to being making adjustments. Afterall he wouldn’t be the first person to have a few hot months. Case in point look at Ryan Howard, people claimed the same thing his 3rd season but that wasn’t true. A hole is a hole. Fixing it leaves you vulnerable in another aspect of the game.

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      • Sylvan says:

        @Scott: So you get to have it both ways. When Ike fell off after a hot start it was because because pitchers adjusted to him, but then when he got hot again, it was just a fluke?

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      • Wobatus says:

        Finished last year strong and started this year strong. Improved as he went through the minors. It does seem like he can adjust.

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    • Sean says:

      LaRoche’s best season by WAR is 2.6 (twice – 2006 as a 26 year old and 2009 as a 29 year old).

      Overbay’s best season was a 2.4.

      Last year, Davis posted a 3.4 season as a 23 year old.

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  20. Ralphie says:

    Ike Davis is seriously underrated.

    Dave Cameron is seriously overrated.

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  21. d_dx says:

    The kid was hitting cleanup a majority of his games. I say that’s pretty damn good rookie season.

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  22. Ralphie says:

    He was hitting in the middle of a terrible line-up that played half of its games in a pitcher’s park.

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  23. D. FRANK says:

    Ike Davis has been picked by GOLD’S HORSERADISH as their 2011 bobblehead doll honoree. So usually, this means the Mets have plans for the guy. Tuesday, July 19th, 7:10 PM game, there will be 25,000 free Gold’s Bobblehead Dolls handed out. (Marc Gold loves Ike Davis because he discovered him at the Brooklyn Cyclones in 2008 before he came to the Mets!)

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