Man on Fire: Baltimore Orioles 1B Chris Davis
Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles should be an average player. His .264 career batting average: not special. His .317 career on-base percentage: bland as Inner Harbor fries without Old Bay. His 84 homers in just over 1700 career plate appearances is decent, I guess, but Adam Dunn-lite doesn't have me jumping for joy.
Absolutely nothing about Chris Davis stands out. And that's why it's so fun to call him the current single best player in the entire major leagues.
The Orioles first baseman has indeed busted out in a big way this season, with seven homers, 21 RBIs, and an incredible .403 batting average under his belt. Considering he's in first in the American League in all three categories (Triple Crown alert?), it's not exactly a surprise that he's on top of our rankings.
But before we're calling him the next Carl Yastrzemski, perhaps we should take a look at the numbers behind his current streak? Indeed, there's some regression to the mean due to take place. Triple Crown candidate he is not, but the numbers indicate that a little patience goes a long way.
Waiting For His Pitch
Davis really isn't hitting the ball that different when he makes contact. Sure, it's nice when 25.0 percent of your fly balls go for homeruns instead of 16.9 percent, but an 8.1 percent increase in that category doesn't build up an entire season. Neither does Davis's line drive percentage - fewer of his current balls in play are for line drives (21 percent) than his career average (22 percent).
The true betterment of the first baseman's game comes with his strikeout and walk rates. Davis has historically been known as the freest of free swingers: if there's a game when he doesn't strike out, it's viewed as a miracle of the Virgin Mary. However, that reputation doesn't exactly hold up this season: his whole K rate isn't actually too shabby.
Striking out on 20.3 percent of your plate appearances isn't great, but it's also not close to where he was at previously. In his five previous MLB seasons, Davis has never finished with a strikeout rate below 27.8 percent of plate appearances. In the season and a half since coming to Baltimore, his strikeout rate has been even higher at 30.1 percent. With that as his background, I'd think decreasing your strikeout rate by 10 percent is a major cause for celebration.
That number, though, shouldn't be viewed in a vacuum: Davis has also more than doubled his walk rate, giving rise to his incredibly high .486 OBP. In 74 plate appearances so far this season, Davis has walked 13.5 percent of the time. Before this season, his career high in a year with at least 200 plate appearances came just last year at... 6.6 percent. I'd say that's not a half bad increase.
Davis's 1.50 SO/BB rate might not be the best in the majors, but considering his past high-strikeout, low-walk life, it's a welcome change. It's just probably not a change that's going to stick.
So What Happens Next?
It might not be all that surprising to hear that we don't think Davis's current batting average and OBP are sustainable. This isn't Ted Williams that we're dealing with here. A big reason for his early success has nothing to do with him: it's the relative wildness of the pitchers facing Davis so far this season.
Davis has seen a 3-0 count in 12 of your 74 plate appearances so far this season (with three of those coming on intentional walks). Davis saw a 3-0 count in only 16 of his 564 total plate appearances last season. While some of the increase can be attributed to seeing the ball better, that number is due to regress to the mean. 3-0 counts on 16.2 percent of plate appearances for a high-strikeout hitter isn't just unsustainable; it's downright idiotic for opposing pitchers to let him get there.
Opposing pitchers currently seem to be scared of Davis's power, but what will happen with his percentage of fly balls for home runs and percentage of balls-in-play for extra-base hits (an unsustainable 56 percent) regress to their normal figures? We project that Davis will begin to see more balls over the middle of the plate, which will send that strikeout rate back up and walk rate back down.
Chris Davis's Current Projected Total 2013 Statistics
These projected numbers aren't bad; the .279 batting average and .879 OPS would be the best marks of his career. They just aren't All-Star level stats. While his 4.61 nERD figure indicates that while Chris Davis may add 4.61 runs per 27 plate appearances above the average player, that figure still only places him in 15th spot among players with projected first base eligibility (playing at least 10 games there this season). He's better than Allen Craig, Freddie Freeman, or Ike Davis, but he's not quite in the ballpark of Billy Butler or Mark Reynolds.
All told, though, even a slightly better year from Davis should be a huge boost to the Orioles. Even his current hot streak, the Orioles sit in 10-8, only third in the AL East. They currently hold a 15.5 percent chance at the playoffs. If Baltimore is to make a run, it will take a few above-projected performances like Davis's so far this season to get them to the Promised Land.