Left-handed, strikeout-prone, and equipped with jaw-dropping power. I could be talking about Chris Davis. I could be talking about Ryan Howard. By this point of the offseason, the Davis-to-Howard comparisons have been done over and over again. There is no denying the similarities between the two slugging first baseman.
Offensively, Davis and Howard are both prodigious home run hitters with power gap-to-gap. At his peak, before injuries effectively rendered his lower half useless, no one in the league hit more majestic moonshots than Ryan Howard. Davis has that type of power. For his career, Howard has put up a wRC+ of 123, Davis 121. Both strikeout. A ton. Howard has struck out in 28.0% of his plate appearances, while Davis has struck out nearly one of every three trips to the plate. Davis and Howard hit homers, take walks, and strikeout. That seems to be the end of the story.
As Chris Davis seeks his new mega-deal, Ryan Howard will continue to be held up as a cautionary tale when it comes to committing a large chunk of change to a strikeout-prone, homer-happy first baseman. The very first year of Howard’s five-year, $125 million extension with the Philadelphia Phillies came on the heels of catastrophic Achilles injury in the 2011 NLDS. Before that injury, however, Howard was already a markedly reduced offensive player. In 295 games in 2010 and 2011, Howard managed to send 64 balls out of the park. He hit 58 in 159 games in 2006 alone. His slugging percentage was also declining sharply, and minor injuries were beginning to nag the big first baseman.
There are, of course, similar concerns when it comes to inking Chris Davis to a long-term deal. With 208 strikeouts in 2015, he has exceeded even the breeziest season of Howard. The 2014 campaign was an utter disaster, and even during his monster 2013 and 2015 seasons, there were long stretches of games in which Davis could barely buy a lazy pop-fly. This is a player who is a threat to homer every single trip to the plate when he is locked in, and is equally a threat to strike out every single trip to the plate when running cold.
There are plenty of similarities between Ryan Howard and Chris Davis, but this is far from a perfect comparison.
For most of his career, Howard appeared to be one of the few Subway-endorsing athletes who would have benefited from a few Veggie Delights. Howard looked unathletic in the field, and ran awkwardly on the basepaths. He has never completed a full season with a positive Defensive Runs Saved rating, and has a -61 career DRS. Howard’s best UZR over a full season is 0.7. Leg injuries have only served to further diminish the defensive value of Ryan Howard, and combined with his power outage, the extension has become one of the worst contracts in the league.
Ryan Howard is kindly listed at 6’4″ and 250 pounds. That may include last season’s slim down. Davis, on the other hand, is listed at the same height, but 230 pounds. He runs the bases like a hard-charging linebacker, and moves well in the field. Davis takes pride in his defense (not saying Howard does not, the results are just underwhelming), and has shown improvement in the field every year. In 2015, Davis ranked second among full-time American League first baseman in DRS, and has seen his UZR improve dramatically over his four years with the Baltimore Orioles. In 2014, when Manny Machado went down with an injury, Davis stepped in at third base. The results were certainly not spectacular, but Davis is not actually a third baseman. With the Orioles playing out a season-long search for corner outfielders in 2015, Davis stepped up and logged 253 innings in the outfield. His UZR/150 ranked fifth among American League outfielders who spent at least 250 innings in the field.
Now, by no stretch of the imagination is Chris Davis an elite defender at first base. He’s not Mark Teixeira. Same goes for the outfield. That being said, he is far from a black hole in the field. Davis gets to a lot of balls at first base that most average fielders would not, due in part to his high level of effort. In the outfield this season, he did show signs of having the tools to play the position. His routes to balls were a bit rough, and he did not always throw the ball to the right man or location, but he is not an experienced outfielder. Given more time, Chris Davis could be a more-than-passable right fielder. Davis is far from a bad body first baseman like Howard, or even Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. Just imagine Ryan Howard trying to play outfield or third base.
Chris Davis is well-rounded, for a first baseman, and his level of athleticism should carry into his mid-thirties. Davis should not be viewed as a candidate to begin breaking down due to lower body injuries in years two and three of a long-term deal. In 2013 and 2015, Davis played in 160 games, and would have played in 151 in 2014, were it not for his suspension.
While the comparison between Chris Davis and Ryan Howard is an apt comparison in many ways, Davis should not be viewed as a Howard clone. The strikeouts and home runs are similar, but that’s where the line should be drawn. Davis is a more complete baseball player when it comes to evaluating more than home run potential. When he ultimately signs his next big contract, Davis will not have already begun his decline. There are risks involved in signing any player who strikes out over 200 times per season, but Chris Davis does at least seem a safe bet to stay healthy for most of the life of his contract. The Phillies should have known better with Ryan Howard, but the same warning signs are not present for whichever team ultimately signs Chris Davis.