-- Players have good years, bad years and in-between years, and in 2016 Chris Davis had an in-between year. He was a productive major leaguer, worth a lineup spot on a good team. But he will most likely be named on no MVP ballots this week, after finishing 14th in voting a year ago and third two years before that. Taken together it's all OK, except that Davis was playing the first year under a $161 million contract that will almost assuredly take him into that phase of his career where they're eventually all bad (and expensive) years. The Baltimore Orioles needed this one to be good.
As teams prepare this month to sign players to new $161 million contracts (or thereabouts), it's worth looking at what makes for an in-between season. In one sense, Davis' drop-off from 2015 to 2016 is remarkable: By OPS , Davis (at 107) was more similar to Erick Aybar (at 69) than he was to the 2015 version of himself (147). In another sense, the margins between superstar and expensive, average player are slim enough to straddle.
To appreciate this, don't think of a season as a single product, built in a factory somewhere and rolled out to the marketplace in its final form. It is a series of hundreds of individual events, each one with the potential to be good, bad or in-between. Consider it, in fact, like this:
That's what we're calling Chris Davis's 2015 season, his good season. That's the jar of dry black beans, unpopped popcorn, gummy fish, gummy half-fish, mini marshmallows, knockoff M&Ms, semi-sweetened chocolate chips and unshelled pistachios that we're going to literally unpack today.
Within that jar are the 47 gummy fish, 31 halved gummy fish, 66 knockoff M&Ms, 84 marshmallows and eight chocolate chips that Davis delivered in 2015. These are all delicious treats, and they are all excellent outcomes for a hitter. Within that jar are also 208 uncooked black beans, 214 unpopped corn kernels, and six pistachios. These are bad outcomes for a hitter, and no matter how many home runs a major leaguer can realistically hit, he's going to fill the spaces in between with outs. As Chris Davis did.
So Davis went from a near-MVP season to a merely OK season, but not everything changed. For instance, he was hit by exactly as many pitches in both years, so the Orioles got just as many chocolate chips as they might have expected. He grounded into exactly as many double plays, so the Orioles got just as many of those as they have expected. If the Orioles were paying Davis to get hit by pitches, and avoid double plays -- and, in some fractional way, they were -- they would have considered him just as good in 2016 as in 2015. Since HBPs and GIDPs were a wash, let's remove those 14 outcomes from the season, because to the extent that Davis failed to repeat his excellent 2015 season, it happened in the other 650-plus outcomes.
Our new jar, free of pistachios and chocolate chips:
He drew four more walks in 2016, so to the extent the Orioles were paying him to walk (and they were) they got more than their money's worth. He had six fewer singles, so to the extent they were paying him to single (and they were), they almost got their money's worth. Davis repeated all of the walks and most of the singles, so remove all of the walks from the marshmallows, and all but six of the knockoff M&Ms.
He hit 38 homers in 2016, down from 47 in 2015. He doubled 21 times, down from 31. So if the Orioles expected him to hit 78 extra-base hits, he lived up to that promise in 59 of 78 instances. Those 19 missing extra-base hits were, more or less, cleanly replaced by 11 extra strikeouts and five extra outs on balls in play. (He also batted five fewer times.)
What got lost in the move remains in the jar; that's the 2015 production that Davis couldn't match. What he replaced it with is in the glass, on the right. We're talking about 20 plate appearances that shifted from positive outcomes to negative, fewer than one bad outcome per week. The overwhelming majority of his nearly 700 plate appearances stayed the same.
This is not to diminish the value of those 20 plate appearances. Switching a home run to an out costs a team, on average, more than a run and a half. Switching a double to an out is roughly a run lost, and a single to an out is almost three-quarters of a run. The jar on the left is worth about 25 runs more to the Orioles, or about two and a half wins, which teams are willing to pay around $20 million or more for. This is why Davis won't sniff an MVP vote this year, and it's why Davis gets lumped in with the regrettable signings from last winter.
It does, though, stress how little has to actually change for a hitter to go from great to good, or good to bad, or valuable to albatross. That even in big samples, a small subsample can swing everything, for Davis or for any other hitter.
You might wonder where those nine homers, 10 doubles and two singles went, and here again we can see how little has to be different for a lot to be different.
From the time that the ball was pitched to the moment it was hit, here's what changed for Davis; a bunch of other things stayed more or less the same, and won't be mentioned:
Pitchers threw slightly more pitches in the strike zone -- about 45 out of every 100, up from 43 of 100.
Davis was much more patient. He swung about five fewer times per 100 pitches seen, a patience that showed up both at pitches in the strike zone and out of the strike zone. He went from the top 40 percent of free-swingers, in 2015, to the bottom 20 percent in 2016. (This probably explains the modest uptick in both walks and strikeouts, as he worked deeper counts.)
More teams shifted against him, though not that many more -- he was already shifted by almost everybody. Still, he hit 127 ground balls against an extreme shift in 2016, up from 113 in 2015 (and 96 the year before that). This cost him a single or so.
Finally, the direction the ball went changed dramatically. Davis pulled 55 percent of the balls he put in play in 2015, which was the fourth-highest pull rate among all qualifying hitters. He pulled just under 42 percent of balls he put in play in 2016, which is the 62nd-highest pull rate. That was the biggest change in pull rate in the majors this year, by a lot:
This last bit seems, at first glance, like a major change. And considering how much more power most hitters have when they pull the ball -- the league as a whole slugged .665 on pulled balls this year, .541 on balls hit to center, and just .495 on balls hit the other way -- it seems like the answer for the missing homers and doubles.
But, in fact, it explains nothing for Davis, who has had extraordinary power to all fields in his career:
His slugging percentage to the opposite field over the past five years is the best mark in baseball by more than 65 points. Hitting more balls to left or center isn't necessarily a bug for Davis, and in 2016 especially it worked to his benefit: He slugged .975 on balls hit the other way, more than 100 points better than any other hitter in baseball. He slugged .795 on balls hit to center, fifth best in baseball, two points behind Mike Trout.
So it wasn't his inability to pull the ball that cost him power. However, it was his inability to pull the ball for power that cost him power. He slugged only .586 when he pulled the ball, his worst power performance on pulled baseballs since 2011, a season he began in Texas. In fact, here is where we find all the missing extra-base hits, and more:
This despite the fact that his exit velocity on pulled baseballs was, at 91.3 mph, almost identical to his 2015 figure (91.6 mph). His exit velocity on pulled line drives went up, from 97.2 mph to 98.7 mph -- and yet his doubles on pulled liners dropped from 16 to five, and homers from five to two. His average exit velocity on pulled fly balls went up, from 95.7 mph to 99.1, and his average distance on pulled fly balls dropped only from 346 feet to 344; and yet his home runs on pulled fly balls dropped in half, from 22 to 11. Sometimes the park just holds you. Sometimes the defense is just a little bit better.
One might still take all these facts and conclude that Davis is in serious and irrevocable decline. Most ballplayers older than 30 are in irrevocable decline, after all, and everything we've noted was different about Davis this year might be used to build in a circumstantial case against him: Pitchers threw him more strikes because they (and their advance scouts) already intuit that he isn't as dangerous as he used to be, maybe. He took more pitches because he realizes that, as he ages, he can't handle as many quality pitches on the edges of the zone, maybe. He pulled fewer pitches because his bat is slower, maybe. He did less damage when he did pull it because he's not as strong, maybe. He dealt with hand soreness throughout the season and said himself that "I haven't been myself all season." His hand kept him from turning the bat over, maybe, or from getting backspin, maybe. Anyway, he struck out more and he hit less. You don't need a jar full of gummy fish to understand that this is what happens to ballplayers sometime after they turn 30.
But we, as analysts and baseball fans and GMs signing free agents, miss on veterans almost as often as we miss on young players, because the unknowns about player performance don't go away, they just shift a little. Almost everything Chris Davis did this year was as good as it had been the year before. In a small sliver of his outcomes, sent to just one sliver of the field, everything he hit turned into nothing -- and for no clear or convincing reason. This is one way that a season ends up in the in-between, and it's one way that we are overeager to declare a contract sunk 14.3 percent of the way into it.