Ike Davis and the Missing HR

Anyone who regularly reads my work knows that Ike Davis has been a favorite of mine for years. More often than not, that love has proven to be misguided, leading me to spend money on a player who has not provided nearly the value I hoped for.

Davis got off to a rocky start this year, largely due to a messy playing time situation with a Mets team that was clearly ready to move on. But since being traded to Pittsburgh, Davis has put up a valuable, although somewhat unexpected, month of baseball.

Coming up (quickly) through the Mets system, Davis was regarded as a future slugger – maybe not a star but a nice source of power just the same. In 2009, in high-A and double-A, Davis accrued only 488 PA but blasted 20 HR. When he broke out in New York in 2010, he hit 19. Two years later, he’d hit 32. This was expected.

What he is doing now, however, is not. Prior to Monday’s game, in 114 PA over 32 games since the move to Pittsburgh, Davis has a .303/.395/.424 line with just 2 HR (about a 10 HR pace over a full season) 15 R and 11 RBI (on pace for 79 and 58 respectively). That line looks more like a slap-hitting speedster (albeit sans SB) than a big time power bat. That leaves fantasy owners wondering where the power went, if it will come back, and whether this spectacular on-base skill can stick around when (if?) it does?

HR require a batter to make contact, hit fly balls and turn those fly balls into HR. Ike is most definitely doing the first. He is being patient (he’s putting up a career low swing% this year) and since becoming a Pirate, his contact % is up to 85.6%, which would be a career high.

The second item is not going as well. In his good run from 2010-2012, Davis had FB rates of 40.5%, 41% and 40%. Since the shift to Pittsburgh, he is at 34.2%. FB rate tends to stabilize around 80 balls in play, and Davis is not quite there, but he is getting close. At the same time, his HR/FB rate is 7.4%, compared to 21.1% in 2012. In 2010, he was at 12%, so this is a big drop even from his 19-HR season. This tends to stabilize around 50 FB, and Davis is only at 27, but there is another piece of data we can look at.

From 2010-2012, Davis was crushing baseballs, averaging 299.7 feet per fly ball (including home runs). In 2014, he is at 286.2. Since moving to Pittsburgh, 279.3. This is a bad thing if you were counting on pop from Ike Davis.

So Davis is hitting fewer fly balls per ball in play, hitting them a significantly shorter distance, and turning far fewer of them into HR. Moving from a park that was basically neutral for LH HR to one that deflates them significantly has not helped, but most of Davis’s power loss can be attributed to simply not hitting the ball as hard in the air. He isn’t getting unlucky – he’s just not hitting for any power.

On the other hand, all those not-fly-balls are turning into line drives. Davis’s 29.1% line drive rate would easily best his current career high (21.1% in 2012) and does a lot to explain a .364 BABIP and those high AVG and OBP numbers.

Here is where things get concerning, though. While FB and HR/FB rates stabilize relatively early, and the lack of fly ball distance to date can account for the power loss, LD rate stabilizes around 650 balls in play. Which means, for all intents and purposes, never. Not like never, never, but never in 2014 never. It may be that Davis has made a meaningful change in his approach, leading to fewer GB and FB and more LD, but the more realistic explanation is that his LD rate will drop, likely leading to more GB and more FB.

The problem is that without the added fly ball distance, those extra fly balls are bad news. They are much less likely than line drives to become hits, and unless he hits them harder, they are not likely to become home runs.

I see two possible scenarios. The happy case: Davis is crushing some line drives, and as he gets more loft on those, they will turn into long fly balls and home runs, increasing his FB rate to around 40%, his HR+FB distance to around 290 and his HR/FB rate to over 10%, resulting in a solid 20 HR pace the rest of the way. His OBP and AVG will come down in the process, but that is ok.

The sad case: Davis is getting lucky with that line drive rate, but the power loss is legit. As the LD rate comes down, so does the BABIP, but the HR’s only barely tick up. The 10 HR rate becomes maybe 12 or 13, but not much more, and in the meantime his OBP and AVG cease to be fantasy assets.

If you want to look for a sign that the happy case is coming true, watch his HR and FB distance. If he starts putting more air under the ball, the power may return with it. As the consummate Ike Davis apologist, there is a good chance I’ll be investing more time and resources into the Pittsburgh first baseman in the hopes that this is what happens.

But my advice to you: don’t count on it.

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Chad Young is a product manager at Amazon by day and a baseball writer (RotoGraphs, Let’s Go Tribe), sports fan and digital enthusiast at all times. Follow him on Twitter @chadyoung.

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Over the last calendar year Ike’s outside swing percentage is 20.1%, 3rd lowest in all of baseball. His BB% is 17.6%, second to Joey Votto. His wRC+ is 132, 37th of all batters with over 350 PA (235 hitters). Higher than Adrian Gonzalez, Mike Napoli and Joe Mauer. But of course Ike is platooning.

This basically started with his demotion in June and return. He stopped swinging at outside pitches and that has cut his swinging strike rate dramatically and upped his contact rate.

In the second half last year, admittedly a small sample, he was able to succeed even without a skyhigh line drive rate. The iso was above .200. But over the last calendar year the ISO is sub-.150.

The good thing is he is no longer a complete mess and hopefully can start to choose spots where he can drive the ball. The adjustment may come when pitchers realize he isn’t swinging at balls anymore and pound the zone, but his 90% zone contact rate is above average this year, so he may be able to handle that.