Why Chris Davis Is the Scariest Signing of the Offseason

For all the big-money deals out there already, the slugging first baseman might be the biggest risk out there.

Last year, there were 4,909 home runs hit in Major League Baseball. The year before, there were 4,186. In 2013, 4,661 balls left MLB stadiums.

Last year's 4,909 dingers were the most hit in Major League Baseball since 2012. So after a couple years of diminishing power, the longball made its reappearance in 2015. But that doesn't mean truly elite power hitters are in large supply.

This is the post-steroid era (presumably), and in the post-steroid era, power is still at a premium. That is why Chris Davis, the slugging first baseman who jacked an American League-best 47 taters last season, is being sought by many teams in need of power-hitting first baseman. 

Davis' 2015 was pretty terrific. He slashed .262/.361/.562, scored 100 runs, knocked in 117, had a .390 weighted on base average (wOBA), a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 147 (100 is a league-average run producer), an fWAR of 5.6, and a nERD of 3.13 that was eighth-best in baseball last year. That nERD score means a lineup full of Davises would score 3.13 runs a game more than a lineup of league average players.

That 5.6 fWAR was fourth-best among first basemen last year, and that .390 wOBA was ninth-best. He is, undoubtedly, the best pure power hitter on the market.

It is also a scary idea to consider signing him to a seven-year, $150-plus million contract. 

What could be so scary about a guy who, since 2012, has hit 159 home runs, more than any other player in baseball? Well, several things.

First, Davis does not hit for average, toting just a .255 career batting average through 3,512 MLB plate appearances. Now, that's not a big deal when he's hitting 35 to 40 home runs a season. But he's also a lousy defender at first, although he does play third base and right field in a pinch as well, with similar results. 

Davis is also a strikeout machine. Last year, he led the American League with 208 K's and has struck out at least 169 times in each of his last four seasons.

But again, this is all manageable if he's an elite power hitter. But as Davis showed in 2014, when he goes bad, he really goes bad.

Just two seasons ago, coming off a season in which he smoked a league-leading 53 homers and 138 RBI, finishing third in the AL MVP vote with a 7.0 fWAR, he stumbled badly. In 525 plate appearances, he hit .196/.300/.404 with 26 homers and 72 RBI, posting a wRC+ of 94 and just a 0.8 fWAR. Defensive shifts ate him up and his HR/FB rate fell. He was also suspended for 25 games at the end of that year for illegal usage of Adderall.

Davis will turn 30 next year, and as a big-bodied, 6'3", 230-pound first baseman, it's more than possible that he will not age well. Many point to Philadelphia's Ryan Howard as a comparable player, both in terms of production in their 20s and the possible future facing any team that signs Davis to a deal that takes him into this 30s.

Here is what Howard, who has a similar body type and profile to Davis, did in his age 26 through 29 seasons, followed by his age 30 through 35 seasons.

Ages Seasons PA HR SLG OPS wRC+
26-29 4 2755 198 .589 .967 139
30-35 6 3024 135 .452 .773 108

In those four seasons, Howard led the National League in homers twice, piling up totals of 58, 47, 48 and 45. His OPS was 1.084, .976, .881 and .931. He was one of the most dominant power hitters in the game.

Next year, Davis will be 30. In Howard's age-30 season, he was still somewhat productive, but not at the levels he was in his 20s, hitting .276/.353/.505 with 31 homers and 108 RBI. In his age 31 season, he hit .253/.346/.488 with 33 dingers and 116 RBI. Then, the wheels, and his Achilles, came off.

Age Season Games HR SLG OPS wRC+ fWAR
32 2012 71 14 .423 .718 88 -1
33 2013 80 11 .465 .784 111 0.4
34 2014 153 23 .380 .690 93 -0.4
35 2015 129 23 .443 .720 92 -0.4

Yikes. And the Phils still have one more year at $25 million left to go on their deal with him.

It is the Ryan Howard comp that should worry teams about signing Davis to a long-term deal. Both are very susceptible to infield shifts, both feature large bodies that generally don't hold up well over time, and both do not add value to their teams defensively or on the basepaths.

But perhaps Davis will be more like David Ortiz, one day becoming a full-time designated hitter. Playing in the National League, Howard was never able to be a designated hitter, something that severely hampered his value. Davis would seem to hold more value to an AL club, who would be able to take him off the field as he gets into his mid-30s. 

But it's a risk, one that any team signing Davis will have to take on.