Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Decline of Chris Davis

Early in this baseball season I've been following two players very closely: Mike Trout and Chris Davis.

Following Mike Trout is for obvious reasons.  He's the best player in baseball and has a chance of being the GOAT in baseball.

Chris Davis is an interesting story.

From 2013 to 2015 he lead the AL in home runs twice, hitting 126 home runs over those three years.  That lead him to get a 7 year contract extension for $161 million.

Since then, he has produced WARs of 3.3, 0.0, and -2.8 from 2016-2018.  In 2018, he hit .168 with a .539 OPS.  The .168 is the worst batting average for a position player who qualified for the batting title in about 100 years.

What happened?  It's sort of interesting to look at the deeper statistics.

From 2013-2015 Davis struck out about 31% of his plate appearances.  That stayed relatively consistent and was 32.9% in 2016.  But it jumped to about 37% in 2017 and 2018.

His strikeout rate was about the same in both 2017 and 2018, but his batting average fell from .215 to .168.  That fall of 47 points is pretty large considering his strikeout rate didn't change.

Was it due to bad luck and/or better positioning of fielders?  That can explain some of it, as his batting average balls in play (BAbip) fell from .301 to .237.

But there were some additional issues.

In 2017 37.3% of his batted balls were grounders.
In 2018, it was 40.0%.

In 2017, 29.1% of his batted balls were line drives.
In 2018, it was 25.2%.

In 2017, 28.4% of his fly balls turned into home runs.
In 2018, it was 15.6%

So while there may have been some bad luck in 2018, he was hitting more ground balls (which are more likely to be outs), hitting fewer line drives (which are more likely to be hits), and he had less power in his fly balls (which turns into more outs).

That and some bad luck, and suddenly you cross the mendoza line and hit .168.

Unfortunately, 2019 is not starting off too well for Davis.  He started the season going 0-28 and he recently broke the record for most consecutive at bats without a hit.  On top of that, he's striking out at a 46.8% clip.  Yikes!

Update 8/21/19:

A somewhat interesting aside.  I had a conversation with some friends about "sunk cost fallacy" and mentioned Chris Davis.  I was reminded of this article: How a Hitless Chris Davis Is Like a $15 Dessert.

In it Nobel Prize winning economist Richard Thaler states that the refusal to cut Chris Davis is the Orioles playing to the sunk cost fallacy.

However, I disagree with him in this case.  (Edit: Ok, technically Orioles could be playing sunk cost fallacy, BUT what I'm really saying is there are actually reasons they may not be.) B/c the situation isn't quite the same.  The classic example of sunk cost fallacy brought up in the article is:
One of his favorite illustrations of sunk cost, he said, is deciding whether or not to attend a basketball game you had purchased tickets for even though attending would mean traveling through a blizzard.
I don't believe this analogy applies to the Chris Davis case.

In the MLB, you have to field a team on the field.  That's an active roster of 25 / expanded roster of 40.  If you were to cut Chris Davis, you'd presumably have to put someone else on the roster.

So cutting Chris Davis isn't free, compared to the basketball ticket example above.  You do have to increase your team salary as a result.

Now, adding a minimum salary MLB player to your roster probably is in the noise to a MLB team.  So why cut him?  The article states:

The team should cut Davis and replace him with a minor leaguer, as even a so-called replacement (or near average) player would represent a significant improvement.
This is true.  However, what's the point of it?  The Orioles only won 47 games in 2018 and are pace to win about 51 this year.  Cutting Chris Davis will hardly matter in the standings and the capability for this team to make the playoffs.

Another way to think about it?  If you're the worst team in baseball, why does it matter being a slightly better worst team in baseball?  Or if you miss the playoffs by 40 games, what difference does it make to miss the playoffs by 37 or 38 games.

On top of that, winning a few extra games might actually be dis-advantageous.  This year, the Orioles are actually "challenging" for the worst record in baseball.  The Tigers (as of this writing) have lost a few extra games.  That can affect the Orioles in their attempt to get a better draft pick.

Given how bad the Orioles are, it may be advantageous to just keep on playing Chris Davis in order to lose a few extra games and get that better draft pick.

Now, there are a few reasons I thought of why the Orioles might want to cut Chris Davis and use the roster spot on someone else.  They all center around giving someone else a shot / experience, and using that to help the team become better long term.

1) Give some bench player / minor leaguer some more playing time.

2) Take a flyer in free agency.

3) Give a rule 5 draftee a roster spot.

Given how terrible the Orioles are, they may be reluctant to start the service clock on a number of minor leaguers earlier than necessary.  #2 and #3 are effectively the same, use the roster spot as a means to acquire some talent either by giving someone a chance to turn things around (the Orioles could keep the player or and trade them for prospects) or use the rule 5 draft to acquire a prospect.

Naturally, #2 can cost a non-trivial amount of money (as an example, Matt Harvey was paid $11 million for his trial with the Angels this year), so that can only be considered when looking at the potential options in free agency.

#3 is atleast a low cost option.  It costs $100K for the draftee in addition to the salary for the roster spot.  So it's not free, and has to be weighed with the fact that the rule 5 draft prospects are typically not the greatest caliber prospects.

All of this has to be weighed against the fact that winning 3 or 4 more games a year may be disadvantageous towards getting a better draft pick.

So while there may be opportunities for the Orioles by cutting Chris Davis, I don't think it's entirely obvious that they should do so.

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