The Return of Chris Davis as a Useful Baseball Player
Last year was certainly one that Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis would like to forget.
Before being suspended for 25 games for illegal use of Adderall, Davis was having a brutal year at the plate. In 525 plate appearances, he hit .196/.300/.404 while striking out at a 33% clip. He was worth just 0.8 fWAR for the O's with a wRC+ of 95, making a below league-average run producer. It was a lost season for Davis, who also suffered an oblique injury and was done in by a .242 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), much of which derived from defensive shifts used against him.
But that BABIP number, as well as a better than league average walk rate of 11.4%, allowed for some hope that he could rebound and be a productive player once again. And with 5 home runs and 12 RBI through the first nine games of August, Davis is once again a slugger to be feared in the Baltimore Orioles lineup.
On the season, Davis is hitting .252/.336/.529 with 30 homers, 82 RBI, a wRC+ of 136 and an fWAR of 3.1. His nERD of 2.30 means a lineup full of Davises would generate 2.3 runs a game more than a lineup full of league average players, and our algorithms predict he'll smash another 11 home runs this season, the most among our projections.
In other words, Chris Davis is back.
No, not quite at the levels of 2013 when he was a straight-up monster, hitting .286/.370/.634 with 53 homers and a wRC+ of 168. But these are still terrific numbers for a guy who is going to be a free agent at the end of the year. He is still striking out a ton, almost as much as last year (31.1%) and he's also walking a bit less (10.9%). But he's also gotten a bit luckier this year, with a .303 BABIP which is slightly better than league average, and a far cry from the .242 BABIP he put up last year.
Looking closer at his peripherals, you won't see any one great huge change, but a lot of subtle differences.
Comparing the last two years, Davis is hitting a few more line drives and fly balls and slightly fewer grounders. That could help account for some of the increase in BABIP. More of his fly balls are leaving the yard, too, with his home run per fly ball ratio (HR/FB) up from 22.6 to 27.3%.
But defenses are wise to continue shifting against him, with even more of his balls in play being pulled than last year, and fewer balls off his bat going the opposite way. It's just that an increased number of those pulled balls are line drives and fly balls, and more of those fly balls are leaving the park.
What's perhaps helped even more is that so many of Davis' balls are considered "hard hit" by FanGraphs. His 40.7% coming into Tuesday was seventh-best in all of baseball. In addition, only 7.4% of all balls hit by Davis were considered "softly" hit, the lowest percentage in baseball. And for a guy who strikes out as much as Davis does, avoiding the softly hit balls is a good thing.
Even in his time of trouble last year, there were signs Davis wasn't as bad as he looked, and that a rebound season might be coming. Certainly, he has provided that this season, and is in the midst of one of those hot streaks that should make him a daily fantasy play every day for a little while longer.