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.