You’d be hard-pressed to find many guys listed on more “sleeper” lists last spring than Ike Davis. The 25 year-old Mets first baseman showed signs of breaking out in 2011, putting up an impressive .302/.383/.543 slash with seven homers and 25 RBI in a season eventually cut short (149 PA) by a left ankle injury. After multiple setbacks late in the season, he proclaimed himself ready to go early in 2012, and with that, the fantasy hype train started rolling. A healthy Davis was locked in as a middle-of-the-order hitter and his 2011 projected full season rates (23 HR, 85 RBI) were set to get a nice boost with the fences at Citi Field being moved in a bit, too. Many owners who passed on elite first basemen like Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, and Miguel Cabrera were skipping past the Freddie Freeman‘s, Paul Konerko‘s, and Billy Butler‘s of the world and hoping to snag Davis in the later rounds.
Leading up to many fantasy drafts, rumblings began to emerge from Arizona that New York feared Davis had contracted Valley Fever – a fungal disease with widely varying degrees of severity (and hence, impact on his ability to perform as a major league first baseman) — a revelation that put his valuation in a bit of peril. Nonetheless, Davis popped a few dingers late in spring training and was starting at first base on Opening Day. However, his first 201 PA led fantasy owners to fear the worst – he finished the first week in June hitting an absymal .158/.234/.273 (.202 BABIP) with 5 HR, 21 RBI, and an ugly 59/18 K/BB. That’s a 15 HR, 61 RBI pace for those keeping score at home. Our own Bill Petti noted that he was seeing far fewer fastballs than he had in his previous big league career and his adjustment was, to put it mildly, far from smooth.
But just when everything appeared to be lost, it seemed almost like a light flipped; his slash from June 9 through the end of the season was a much more impressive .265/.347/.565. In 383 PA, he hit 27 HR with 69 RBI and saw his BABIP sit at a more reasonable .270. Projecting these numbers of 162 games gives Davis an elite-level 44 HR and 112 RBI. In fact, Davis’ .888 OPS after the all-star break was the second highest of eligible National League 1B (minimum 200 PA), behind only Buster Posey (a guy you probably weren’t starting at 1B) and his 20 taters over the same period were fifth-best in baseball (behind Miguel Cabrera, Chase Headley, B.J. Upton, and Adrian Beltre). The percentage of fastballs Davis saw climbed somewhat (by PitchF/X, he finished the year near 55% as opposed to 51% in late May) but he still was seeing less fastballs than he had in 2010 and 2011, hinting that at least something clicked in his plate discipline and offspeed pitch recognition that was lacking early in the season.
Now, projecting Davis’ numbers out to a full 162 games (especially the latter portion of the season) is a bit of an exercise in fantasy (no pun intended) since his .369/.246 wOBA vs. RHP/LHP platoon splits remain a problem and served to keep Davis low in or out of the lineup against southpaws. But there were plenty of positives that crept into his peripherals as the year went along – his BB% sat around 7% in April/May, but was north of 12% for the remainder of the season. His K% was poor all season, but at least declined from near 29% during the season’s first two months to ~25% thereafter. He also appears to have suffered from some rather poor BABIP luck; his 21.1% LD% and subsequent .310 xBABIP are more in line with his previous seasons (.321 and .344 in 2010 and 2011, respectively) than his .246 figure in 2012 (even with the somewhat concerning bump in his infield pop up rate). Regressing his true average towards his xBABIP puts his line closer to something in the ballpark of .260/.360/.520 and that’s still including the early suck that was Mr. Davis. Maybe you have a reason for not regressing him all the way back (especially if you believe his ankle injury has semi-permanently affected his baserunning speed), but that gives you the idea of what a more normalized season looks like for Ike.
So where does that leave the real Ike Davis? There’s substantial evidence to point to a true talent level closer to his second half performance than his first two months. He only finished 21st in our season-ending rankings, but it’s obvious his status was dragged down by him putting up well-below replacement level numbers early in the 2012 campaign. Managers who were able to snag him off the wire after a frustrated owner gave up in late May or early June were provided with cheap homers (and SLG/OPS if those are a category in your league) at the 1B and corner infielder positions and likely saw even more substantial gains if they were able to platoon him during days the Metropolitans faced lefties. Will he be a top sleeper candidate in 2013? Probably not, or at least, he won’t be as trendy of one. Many were burned this year and won’t go back to the fire again and the massive platoon splits don’t appear to be going away anytime soon, keeping Davis from being a day-in-day-out bonafide cleanup hitter. There’s also the question as to where he’ll be playing, which could have a substantial impact on his counting stats next year. However, if owners use his aggregate 2012 numbers to slot him in on their cheat sheets during drafts next spring, he’s almost certainly to be undervalued, and guys with 40+ homer upside that fall past pick 150 are ones you want to roll the dice on.