Last year, J.D. Davis slashed 307/369/527 with a 136 wRC+ in 453 plate appearances. To put that in perspective Braves superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. slashed .280/.365/.518 last year with a 126 wRC+. Obviously, Acuna is better because of his defense superiority and larger sample size of success, but if Davis can hit like he did last year he will be one of the best hitters in the NL East.
However, many Mets fans doubt that his breakout is sustainable. Davis had a 35 wRC+ in 113 plate appearances with the Astros in 2018, and his .355 BABIP in 2019 is concerning. The most compelling and logical argument against Davis’ breakout is his high BABIP, or “batting average on balls in play.” The purpose of the stat is to spot players who may have gotten lucky or unlucky. The idea is that a player with a high BABIP might’ve been lucky by having an unusual percentage of his balls in play result in hits and that the player’s BABIP will eventually regress to league average or his career average, consequently bringing down his batting average and offensive production. However, for some players having a high BABIP is a skill. The past 2 years, there have been 5 players with at least 1000 plate appearances and a BABIP above .350. In my opinion, Davis is one of the players who can sustain a high BABIP.
One reason I believe Davis can sustain a high BABIP is
Another reason Mets fans might doubt Davis is because of his high whiff rate. Davis had about an average strikeout and walk rate in 2019 but his 28.1% whiff rate is above the league average 24.3%. This may lead some to believe that he will start to strike out more.
However, I disagree. Davis has a very good approach at the plate which makes up for the whiff rate. He has a good chase rate of 26.1% (28.3% is league average) and a good zone swing rate of 71.5 (league average is 66.1%) Davis’ low chase rate isn’t just because he has a patient approach, it is because he has a good eye. He is able to swing at more pitches in the zone than average while also swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone than average. Davis swung at 87.5% of meatballs, which is well above the league average rate of 75.1%. We can see his excellent pitch selection demonstrated in his swing take profile.
The swing take profile shows that Davis swings at pitches in the heart of the plate 7% more than league average while swinging at pitches in the chase region 7% less than league average and pitches in the waste region 3% less than league average.
The main concern for Davis is his defense. If McNeil plays third base, Davis will be forced into left field where he struggled last year with a -11 DRS and a -7 OAA in 585.1 innings. Over a 150 game season or 1,350 inning span, that would be a -25 DRS and a -16 OAA. That would be the worst DRS in the league and the second-worst OAA behind only Eddie Rosario. However, defensive stats in short sample sizes are usually unreliable and while it is obvious that Davis is a bad fielder he likely isn’t as bad as his small sample size DRS and OAA suggest. Even if we believe that Davis will put up a -25 DRS in a full season he is still an above-average player. If he costs 25 DRS and then 3 runs on the bases, his offensive production would have to be 28 runs above the average left fielder to make up for this. Last year, the average left fielder had a .327 wOBA. If we substitute .327 for the league average wOBA in the wRAA equation we learn that in order to maintain to make up for his defensive woes Davis has to have a .381
J.D. Davis’ defensive metrics will likely improve more than his offensive metrics will decline and his 2020 season is likely to be even better than 2019. The coronavirus affects how much we can learn from the season and what Davis’ role would be. The late start means that Yoenis Cespedes and Jed Lowrie will be healthier and Davis will likely lose playing time as a result. The shortened season will cause small sample sizes which will make his stats less reliable especially on defense. If the MLB decides to use the universal DH, Davis will likely slot into that role and it will increase his value dramatically.
Stats from Fangraphs, Baseball Savant, and https://pmammino18.shinyapps.io/contactconsistency/.