A fair amount has been written about both Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles and his season. Put simply, Davis has been a train wreck combined with a tire fire. He was the third-best hitter in all of baseball last year, which is shocking for me to even write considering how bad he is right now. This is just a snapshot of his numbers between 2013 and 2014.
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So everything is worse, which — not surprisingly — leads to a worse season. While he’s still hitting for great power, it’s nothing close to what he was hitting in 2013. It would be pretty easy to look at his BABIP, which often is an indicator of how lucky a hitter is, and say Davis has just been tremendously unlucky this year, and was super lucky last year.
And you wouldn’t be wrong, necessarily. He has been unlucky this year. But his career BABIP is .323, which isn’t too far off from the .336 he posted last year. So I guess a positive here is that if the season were, I don’t know, 250 games instead of 162, Davis would probably stop being so unlucky and get closer to normal. Unfortunately it’s not 250 games, so he might not turn it around so quickly.
When hitters have a major breakout year like Davis did in 2013, it maybe shouldn’t be too surprising if they drop back a little in the following season. It often is a surprise, but pitchers scout those hitters a little harder, coaching staffs focus on them more, and so on and so on. So naturally, if a pitcher realizes a hitter totally crushes sliders and fastballs, that pitcher — if he’s not a dummy — will likely throw fewer sliders and fastballs, or at least fewer of those that are hittable.
Using pitch values from FanGraphs, we can see that, last season, Davis was that guy who crushed fastballs and sliders (and changeups, too).
So Davis was better than most at hitting fastballs in 2013, and he was even better at hitting sliders and changeups. This year, though, he can’t seem to hit any of those three kinds of pitches as well, and he pretty much can’t hit a curveball or changeup at all.
Would you like to guess what non-fastball pitches he’s been getting more? Did you guess curveballs and changeups? If you did, congratulations! You’re correct! Pitchers have adjusted to Davis hitting fastballs and sliders, and they’ve started to give him more curveballs and changeups, which, again, he can’t seem to hit this year. So part of Davis’ problem could simply be that he’s being pitched to differently.
And it’s not only that different kinds of pitches are coming to Davis. Pitchers are throwing low and away more often, and it’s hurting his numbers. Below is what I’m going to call an animation showing where pitches are coming to Davis. It’s from the catcher’s point of view, and it reads like a heatmap; white is neutral, red means more pitches are coming in that location and blue means fewer pitches are coming in that location.
So it’s pretty clear that 2014 pitchers are focusing on Davis low and away, which is a good idea since Davis is having trouble hitting those pitches, as shown in this second animation, or whatever it is.
So pitchers are coming at him differently, and he’s hitting differently. In 2013, Davis could basically hit anything in the strike zone and even a little bit below the zone. This year, he seemingly can’t hit the ball unless it’s low in the zone, and even then it’s a little shaky.
He’s also changed his approach a little bit. While Davis is chasing fewer pitches out of the zone, he’s also swinging less in general, even at strikes, and that’s a trend that’s been going on since 2012. And not swinging at strikes isn’t always a bad thing; Joey Votto swings less than almost anyone, and he’s a pretty good hitter. What’s a little troubling is that Davis is making less contact when he does swing, and that’s also a trend two years in the making. Of course, when a guy is hitting .286 and blasting 53 home runs, who cares if he’s making less contact? But when those 53 dingers turn into 21 and that .286 average drops below .200, we can start to be concerned.
So it’s all kind of going against Davis right now. He’s trying to be more patient, but pitchers are recognizing that and throwing him more strikes. And when he gets behind in the count, it makes things a little more difficult. Plus those mean old pitchers are throwing him pitches he doesn’t hit so well. It’s been an off year for Davis, and he’s still hitting for really good power. Not as much as 2013, but still a lot. If he can do that, and maybe turn things on for the last 35 or so games and into the playoffs, his team could make some kind of run. Maybe not a great run, but some kind of run.
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