Is Davis' Hot Start a Sign of Things to Come?

Chris Davis is playing out of this world right now.  He is on pace for 162 homeruns, 122 doubles, and 648 RBI, which – to state the blatantly obvious – are just ridiculous numbers.  To state the obvious a second time, nobody in his or her right mind expects Davis to come even close to keeping up this sort of production.  It is no knock on Davis – those numbers just do not occur in Major League Baseball over a 162 game season.

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The million dollar question is how much of Davis’ production is simply the result of an insane early season hot streak and how much of it might be a harbinger of things to come? He is not going to hit 162 homeruns in 2013, but will Davis cool off and return to the 30 homerun hitter he was in 2012 or will he build of this hot start to hit perhaps 45+ homeruns? 

It is risky business to read too much into four games’ worth of statistics, but there are a lot of reasons – reasons going beyond an early season tear – that should lead one to believe Davis could be in-line for a huge season.

To start, Davis’ minor league numbers are nearly as ridiculously impressive as his current numbers are.

Those sorts of offensive numbers do not grow on trees.  While it is true that Davis spent his AAA career in the Pacific Coast League – a notoriously hitter-friendly league – his numbers (a .318/.375/.597 slash line in 975 plate appearances) are still incredibly impressive.  At each stop in the minor leagues, Davis showed both strong hitting and power tools.  I don’t care what leagues the numbers are being produced in – career minor league numbers that include a .318 batting average and .279 ISO (SLG less BA) put Davis in rare company of prospects that can hit for average while still maintaining significant power.

Davis carried over some of his minor league success in his first taste of the Majors by hitting .285/.331/.549 in  80 games with Texas in 2008 as a 22 year-old.  His average fell over 40 points the next season, dragging down his slugging percentage and OPS with it.  He spent significant time back in AAA in 2009, 2010, and 2011 as the contending Rangers had little patience for a player that would have to do some growing on the job.  It was those struggles that made Davis expendable to Texas and made him a piece of the trade that sent Koji Uehara to the Rangers in exchange for Tommy Hunter and Davis at the 2011 trade deadline.

Davis had a very good 2012 season, flashing the same sort of tools that made him such a great Minor League player.  His average came back up to a respectable .270 and his .231 ISO was also more in-line with he had done earlier in his pro career.  When players have a good age 22 season and then spend most of the next three seasons in the Minors, they tend to get labeled as wash outs.  Sometimes, those players just were not given a long leash to perform in MLB and/or took a bit longer to mature into productive Major League hitters.  Davis’ age 26-season in 2012 suggested that he might fall into the latter group.  The power was always there.  It was his ability to hit for average that dipped.  2008 and 2012 have shown that Davis can hit for a respectable average in the Majors.  It will likely not be at the .320-levels he showed in the Minors.  Most players – especially those prone to striking out like Davis – will see a significant dip in batting average when making the jump to MLB, however a hitter with Davis’ power can certainly more than get by as a .270-ish hitter.

Those strikeouts might tell the story for Davis in 2013.  His strength is uncanny and his ability to hit the ball with force the other way is a real tool.  In other words, if he makes contact, chances are Davis is going to hit the ball hard somewhere.  His prior numbers bare that out as whenever Davis has had success in his pro career, he has done so despite striking out at much higher than average rates.  If Davis is on his way to a truly great season that will place him amongst the best hitters in baseball, there is a good chance the strikeouts will come down as well.  Pitchers will adjust and try to find ways to retire the slugging first baseman.  Davis will need to stay within himself, take the walks that he will surely be given, and let his God-given strength do the rest when he does get a pitch to handle.

Small sample size aside, Davis has shown how dynamic of a hitter he can be when he puts the ball in play.  He has only struck out once this season in 18 PA’s.  In 2012 when Davis made contact (ie. At Bats less strikeouts) he got a hit 40% of the time.  The more Davis can reduce his strikeouts, the more hits he is likely to get as he does not hit the ball weakly all that often.

What separates Davis from many other players is his ability to go opposite field while not sacrificing much – if any – power.  Through these first four games, teams have tried to go away from Davis with little success.  Davis is 2-3 on pitches away and outside of the strike zone with both hits being homeruns.*  On strikes low and away, Davis is 2-3 on the season and 1-1 on strikes high and away.  He has a homerun and two doubles in those situations.  In 2012, Davis was equally as good at hitting strikes when pitched away but struggled on balls away and out of the strike zone.  As we have seen with Josh Hamilton, even the best players cannot consistently get by when chasing balls away and off the plate.  If pitchers continue to creep even further off the plate in an attempt to get Davis’ out, he will need to adjust by laying off those pitches and taking his walks.

Chris Davis is receiving the attention he is receiving in large part because it is occurring at the start of the season.  Feats that happen during the first week or month of a baseball season are magnified because they stand on their own.  While a hot streak in June might get buried in a player’s season-to-date numbers, a hot streak during opening week has nowhere to get buried in.  Other players have rode comparable hot streaks before and chances are there will be players later this season that get nearly as hot as Davis is now.

Only time will tell if this is a hot streak or the start of a huge year for Chris Davis.  Based on what we have seen of Davis both this year and in prior seasons, I would not bet against the latter.

*  Hot Zone information courtesy of ESPN.com.