To the best of my knowledge, there has not yet been an advanced metric created to define being lost at the plate. Unfortunately for Orioles fans, it would not take advanced statistical analysis to tell you that Chris Davis was exactly that in 2014. Following an MVP caliber 2013 season, Davis never quite got untracked last season, and spent much of his time wandering back to the dugout shaking his head.
Davis had one of the all-time greatest single seasons in Orioles history in 2013, leading the league with 53 home runs and 138 RBI. He slashed .286/.370/.634. In 2014, his slash line sunk to .196/.300/.404. He played in only 127 games after dealing with various minor injuries, and seeing his season cut embarrassingly short after a positive test for Adderall. The rapid decline in production is quite perplexing given the fact that Davis’ strikeout and walk rates remained relatively similar from season to season.
To try to figure out what exactly was the cause of Davis’ demise last season, I headed over to Fangraphs to take a look at the pitch data and plate discipline statistics. I was fully expecting to see a large jump in Davis’ chase rate. When you see a high strikeout rate player like Davis struggle as he did in 2014, the first thought that comes to mind is that he must have been chasing more pitches out of the zone as pitchers exploited his propensity to swing at breaking pitches off the plate.
When I really delved into the statistics, I was surprised to see that Davis’ O-swing%, which is the percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone he swung at, was actually a career low 31.6%. In his strong 2013 season, Davis had chased at a rate of 35.6% and has a career chase rate of 36.8%.
Consider that hypothesis busted.
The next number that stood out at me was Davis’ F-Strike%. For those unfamiliar, F-Strike% measures the percentage of plate appearances in which the batter sees a first pitch strike. Last season, Chris Davis had an F-Strike% of 62.5%, which represented a significant spike from the 56.6% of first pitch strikes he saw in 2013. Couple this with the fact that Davis’ Z-Strike%, the percentage of pitches inside the zone a player swings at, dropped from 71.0% to 65.6%, and you can begin to see a bigger picture. It appears Davis was less aggressive at the plate in 2014, allowing himself to fall behind in the count.
In 2013, Davis had 280 at-bats go to an 0-1 count. In 2014, that number was 261 with 33 fewer games played. That is 50% of his at-bats, versus only 42% in 2013. He also swung at the first pitch less often in 2014. Davis put the first pitch in play 11% of the time in 2013, and batted .438 when doing so. Those figures were down to 7% and .395 in 2014. He was clearly still an effective hitter when going after the first pitch, but was less likely to do so. Here is one final glaring statistic to reinforce the fact that Davis was a less aggressive hitter in 2014 – 32.4%. That is the percent of strikeouts looking. The league average was 24.5%.
Something was clearly up with Chris Davis in 2014. It is hard to explain the statistics I have outlined here with anything but speculation. There was no noticeable change in the way Davis was pitched to in 2014. Both Pitch f/x and Baseball Info Solutions pitch data show that there was very little change in the breakdown of pitches thrown to Davis in 2014. He saw roughly the same number of fastballs, sliders and curveballs each of the past two seasons, and he actually swung at less pitches out of the zone in 2014.
As I write this and think back on last season, I can clearly recall watching the Orioles play and imploring Davis to swing early in the count as fastball after fastball breezed by him. He was not taking Adderall in 2014 after previously having a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) to use the drug to treat his ADHD. Davis has once again received the TUE and will take medication to treat his condition in 2015. It is quite possible that without the added focus provided by the medication his approach at the plate suffered.
It is also entirely possible that the season long slump affected him mentally, draining his confidence and leaving him paralyzed at the plate. Baseball players are human beings and not all performance can be boiled down to statistics. The statistics show what was happening, but they do not show why.
The Orioles do not need another 50 home run season out of Davis. As they look to replace Nelson Cruz, a return to 2012 production levels should be enough to allow the Orioles to retain their AL East crown. If his demise a year ago was largely caused by his lack of aggression at the plate, it is entirely correctable. Davis is one of the game’s best fastball hitters, and with good plate discipline, he can force pitchers to give in to him. He must capitalize when that happens, however.
A .270 BA with 35-40 home runs and 100 RBI are well within reach for Davis, but he must not fall back into the trap of becoming too patient at the plate, as that is what did him in a year ago. Combined with the return of Matt Wieters and Manny Machado, a return to form by Chris Davis will allow the Orioles offense to roll on without missing a beat despite the loss of Nelson Cruz.