Chris Davis, Swallowed By the Shift

You likely spent a late first round or early second round pick for him, paid $30+ to secure his services or were giddy about protecting him at a low cost in your keeper league. And then he made your heart sink. Chris Davis ranked 20th among first basemen and amazingly was outearned by the likes of teammate Steve Pearce and power-starved James Loney. This was not the follow-up we expected.

We always knew that Davis possessed mammoth power and so his dazzling 2013 performance wasn’t really out of the realm of possibility. In fact, nothing in his underlying stats were out of the ordinary. While he did bump up his HR/FB rate by a somewhat meaningful amount, his power outburst was driven more by a fly ball rate surge. A career high FB%, combined with a career high HR/FB rate was all it took to eclipse the 50-homer plateau. While we had to assume some level of regression, especially since there was no telling how much of that fly ball rate increase he would sustain, no one could have predicted the decline he eventually endured.

But, it wasn’t his power that led to his wOBA plummeting by more than 100 points. Well, yes it did play a role. His ISO fell from .348 to .209, but he still posted a HR/FB rate above 20%, while his batted ball distance flirted with the 300 foot level (though that did represent about an 11 foot decline from 2013). His doubles rate is where you’ll see the most evidence of a loss in power — his at bats per double skyrocketed from 13.9 to 28.1. So it wasn’t simply a matter of switching the split between doubles and homers, but severely less power overall. Again though, that wasn’t the biggest driver of his hugely disappointing season from a fantasy perspective.

Instead, the problem stemmed from his batting average. A .196 mark over 450 at-bats is a fantasy killer. His strikeout rate jumped to the second highest mark of his career, which provided some of the explanation. But the rest of it could be explained by his BABIP. Generally a strong BABIPer and coming off two straight seasons with marks in the mid-.330 range, Davis posted a measly .242 mark this year, nearly 100 points below the last two years.

In recent years, the defensive shift has been in vogue. And we’ve talked about it a lot on here and attempted to account for it when formulating an xBABIP metric. Since Davis is a lefty, the immediate reaction is that he must be facing lots of shifts. Well, let’s first check out his spray chart to determine if it would make sense for defenses to employ one on him:

Chris Davis Spray Chart

We find that blob of black dots between first and second base that represents grounders to Davis’ pull side. So yup, it would certainly appear that he makes for a strong shift candidate. He uses the whole field when hitting balls into the outfield, but the grounder is typically pulled.

But if teams have always known this, haven’t they always shifted him? And if they have always shifted him, how has he managed to post such strong BABIP marks? Excellent questions inquisitive one!

Armed with the data from SQL wizard Jeff Zimmerman, check out the shift numbers since 2012:

Season At-Bats Balls in Play Shift Count % Shifted Shift BABIP No Shift BABIP
2012 515 346 110 31.8% 0.364 0.323
2013 584 385 199 51.7% 0.302 0.431
2014 450 277 230 83.0% 0.230 0.353

In his first real full season in 2012, teams had the right idea about shifting him, doing so for about 32% of his balls in play. But it didn’t matter, as he managed to post a higher BABIP when shifted than when not! Teams looked past the small sample results and given his propensity to pull ground balls, decided to shift significantly more in 2013. His shift BABIP fell, but it still remained respectable at around the league average.

But this year, teams went bananas with the shift, doing so 83% of the time! Perhaps with two years of data in their back pockets, teams learned precisely where to station their fielders, as Davis’ BABIP into the shift plunged to just .230. His BABIP without the shift remained well above average, but it didn’t matter since he rarely faced a straight up defense. Since his overall batted ball distribution remained excellent, as he continued to hit lots of line drives and avoid the pop-up, the shift was his worst enemy. Unfortunately, without more detailed data about where his balls went when shifted, it’s difficult to determine how much of the low BABIP was bad luck and how much was directly the result of the shift. I would speculate though that since his shift BABIP dropped so significantly, there is seemingly some element of bad luck involved. How much is anyone’s guess.

It’s clear in the era of the shift that Davis will continue to face it. It would be easy to assume his BABIP should rebound some next year, but it’s impossible to know by how much. The Steamer projections have no knowledge of defensive shifts and therefore look to Davis’ career BABIP of .320 and project a .307 mark next season. Will it rebound that high? Or does Davis remain under .300 unless he makes some adjustments that force teams to shift him less often? Whatever the case, a scary low batting average is always a risk when dealing with a player who strikes out nearly a third of the time.

Heading into next year, it will be interesting to see how fantasy owners value him in drafts. Does his value drop far enough that he’ll now cost similarly to what he did coming off his solid 2012 campaign? Since his fly ball rate finished in between his 2013 and previous season marks, then he could easily post a high-30 homer season. This of course assumes his strikeout rate gets back to about 30%, rather than the 33% mark he posted this season. It might come with a .240 average though, which remains the downside risk. Depending on your league, he could end up a good value or not.

**I have ignored Davis’ positive amphetamine test as anything I say would be pure speculation, so there’s little reason to discuss it



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Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Jon L.
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Great data! I noticed his 2014 BABIPs against the shift and not against the shift fell by virtually the same amount. It’s a small sample for the latter – fewer than 50 balls in play – but suggests he may have been hitting the ball with less authority.