Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 8/29/14
New-york-mets-ike-davis
Ike Davis homered in the season’s second game. He homered twice a couple weeks later, then he homered again a week after that. That makes it sound like Davis hit a flurry of home runs, which he didn’t. He hit four over a handful of weeks. But then, after going deep on April 25, he didn’t go deep again until the beginning of June. On June 2, Davis took Kevin Slowey deep to center in Miami, and Ron Darling chimed in innocently enough: Well let’s see if that can get Ike going. Davis singled in his next at-bat. Then he went 1-for-14. Finally, after weeks of speculation and strong denial and halfhearted denial, the Mets gave Davis a demotion to Triple-A, his OPS standing at an even .500. It’s been Davis’ contention that he can’t learn to hit major-league pitchers in the minor leagues. The Mets, though, would like to see him at least hit minor-league pitchers. They’d like to see him at least hit someone. Davis, much of the time, has looked terrible. It’s tempting to conclude that baseball is littered with busted or busting young first basemen. Aside from Davis, Eric Hosmer has yet to figure things out. Justin Smoak has three home runs, and we still don’t know if there’s going to be more to Brandon Belt, and Brett Wallace is in the minors after striking out 17 times in 26 plate appearances. But then, Anthony Rizzo‘s doing just fine, and Paul Goldschmidt is hitting like an MVP candidate. Freddie Freeman‘s been fantastic. We recall more easily those who don’t meet expectations. We recall more easily the disappointments. But this isn’t about the landscape of first basemen. This is about Ike Davis, and what’s become of a talented and productive young hitter. It’s not enough, I don’t think, to say simply that Davis has accrued a -1.0 WAR. It’s not sufficiently powerful to note that Davis has been worth negative one of something. Open up Notepad and start typing numbers. Begin with one, and go from there, counting upward until you hit 207. This is the amount of times Davis has come to the plate for the Mets in 2013. I hope you didn’t actually perform that exercise, but I trust that you can imagine it. That’s a lot of plate appearances, even if it’s only about a third of one full season. Over that many plate appearances, Davis has done this: .161/.242/.258 Zero National League pitching staffs have hit for a higher wRC+, which is good. Two have come close, which is bad. Two have a higher slugging percentage. Four have a higher batting average. Seven have a higher BABIP. Davis is 26. He debuted in the majors when he was 23, and between the ages of 23-25, Davis was decidedly above-average at the plate. He was miserable out of the gate a year ago, but he recovered, a strong second half carrying his numbers into more-than-acceptable territory. We’ll talk a little more about that later on, but first, to what degree is this statistical collapse unprecedented, or, precedented? Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I examined the window between 1970-2013, and found players who posted an OPS+ of at least 110 over at least 1,200 plate appearances between the ages of 23-25. We find Davis at 118 and 1,334. Then I looked at how those players did when they were 26. I was left with a sample numbering 190, and here’s a meaningful image: That’s Davis, with the OPS+ of 42. The only other guy close to him, as it happens, is current Alex Avila. Avila’s at 54, after coming in at 112 the three seasons previous. But, Davis has lost 75 points of OPS+. The next-biggest drop in the sample is -57, then -55, then -47. Davis, of course, probably isn’t done being a major leaguer in 2013, as it stands to reason he’ll show up again in September at the very least. That’s one of the problems with blending current in-season stats with historical stats. But Davis doesn’t have much company, in terms of sudden collapses. Davis was good, and more recently he’s been a disaster. Now, about that 2012 slump. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that Davis has done this before, and come out of this before. Last June 5, Davis had himself a .501 OPS. The rest of the way, it was over .900. There was all the same talk about Davis, but he started hitting for consistent power and everyone forgot that he’d earlier been a black hole. But, first, Davis might have been recovering from illness, as he later opened up about his fatigue related to valley fever. That’s high on the list of acceptable excuses. And, second, just because a guy has bounced back from a slump before doesn’t mean he’ll do it again. You’d rather a guy just not get into terrible, unwatchable slumps. Good hitters don’t let that happen. It would be arrogant and presumably misleading to try to identify the cause of Davis’ problems. I mean, the surface stuff is easy enough. He’s striking out more than ever. He’s hitting for less power than ever. He’s hitting the ball less hard than ever. Something is up, either with Davis’ swing, or with his eye, or with both. It’s unhelpful to compare 2010 and 2013 screenshots, since there are countless similarities: Davis has a big hitch in his swing, but that’s always been there, and he’s hit with it before. Maybe pitchers have found a way to expose him, but why did it take until year four for that to happen? The actual issues with Davis are going to be subtle, and they might not even be visible. What we see might be symptoms of an essentially invisible problem. I don’t know, and that’s on Davis and the Mets to figure out. I certainly can’t know more than they do. But what’s clear is that, in some way, Davis is broken. It’s unlikely that this would be a step on Davis’ path toward becoming an elite, franchise first baseman. The good news is that there can still be good news. Between 23-25, Mickey Tettleton was about average. He was awful at 26, but then he was a solid hitter all the way through 35. J.T. Snow was also awful at 26, and then he hung around for more than a decade. Historically, players have bounced back from dreadful seasons, and Davis has already bounced back from a partial dreadful season, and Davis is his own man so history means only so much anyway. It’s important that Davis has been bad, but it’s perhaps equally important that Davis has been good, for years. In the big picture, Davis does still have a 107 career wRC+, and that can’t be forgotten on account of a couple terrible months. But the big question is whether Davis’ career wRC+ will ever again be higher than that. The only thing we know for sure is it won’t be changing soon.
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