Friday, November 16, 2012

Why the Pessimism Surrounding Ike Davis?

After an inconsistent 2012, many consider Ike Davis' future to be far cloudier than they did a year ago. Davis followed an impressive rookie campaign (.264/.351/.440, 19HR) with an excellent start to his sophomore season (.302/.383/.543, 7HR) that was cut short after only 149 plate appearances due to a freak ankle injury suffered on a pop up in Colorado.

After missing the last 126 games in 2011, Davis' health was further thrown into question after rumors surfaced of a valley fever infection. Ike (and Mets brass) insisted this would be a non-factor, and he finished spring training on a high note, homering in the Mets' final three spring games. 

Things would turn quickly south, however. It wasn't until his sixth game that Ike got his first hit of the season, and things did not pick up much after that. He showed flashes of his ability at times (he homered in 3 out of 4 games April 14th-18th), but largely seemed to be struggling. Those struggles were attributed to a combination of rust, his health, and his mental fortitude. Everything came to a head in early June, when the decision was made not to demote Davis; Sandy Alderson claimed that the first baseman would better benefit from hitting (or trying to) against Major League pitching. That was June 8th of this year. Perhaps coincidentally, things looked up for Ike Davis that very day.

Ike Davis on June 8th: .158/.234/.273, 5 HR
Ike Davis since June 8th: .263/.345/.560, 27 HR

Not only was Davis contributing again offensively, he became the player everyone hoped for. From June 8th to the end of the season, Davis' .905 OPS would lead all National League first basemen. His 32 home runs in 2012 were one shy of Adam LaRoche (who led NL first basemen in HR), and LaRoche had 63 more plate appearances. His 32 were tied for fourth overall in the NL (with Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran), and his 18.25 PA/HR was second in the National League, trailing only Ryan Braun. So the question here is, why so much uncertainty going forward?

1. Ike Davis has disparate platoon splits.

In 2012, Davis did show some bad splits, posting a .560 OPS vs. left-handed pitching compared to an .868 OPS vs. righties. His overall line vs. LHPs was .174/.225/.335, which is certainly nothing to hang his hat on. That said, that line on May 24th was .184/.200/.327. His OPS did ultimately improve, though his average dropped 10 points. Why bring this up? Well, looking back to the lines posted above, it shows that Davis managed a .905 OPS despite hitting so disparately. Frankly, were Davis able to do that over a full season, I doubt any Mets fans would complain (his turnaround stats, projected over all 584 of his 2012 PA's, would yield 41 home runs and 30 doubles against a respectable .263 batting average.

Further, Ike suffered from an abyssmal .193 BABIP against lefties (compared to a slightly-below-average .271 BABIP against righties), which suggests some room for progression to the mean, given his career mark of .277.  Also, worth noting, is Ike's .805 OPS against left-handed pitching as a rookie. Granted, this mark came against a rather high .388 BABIP (suggesting regression). Putting these two pieces of evidence together suggests Ike's true abilities lay somewhere in the middle. If he could manage an OPS between .650 and .700 against left-handed pitching, along with his consistent ability to hit right-handed pitching, Davis could develop into an elite first baseman in a league lacking them after both Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder signed with American League ballclubs.

2. Ike Davis struggles against breaking pitches.

Again, this carries some credence, given that Ike saw curveballs or sliders on nearly 1/3 (31.6%) of all pitches he saw this year. Once again, I humbly (okay, okay. I do it smugly) point to the numbers above. I think that, while he may not fare exceptionally against them, he at least regained his ability to lay off breaking pitches out of the zone (his strikeout rate dropped a full 7% after June 8th).

In short, it seems foolish, to me, that people are now so unsure about the abilities of Ike Davis. The odds that his struggles could be attributed to being away from baseball for close to 10 months (as opposed to his abilities being 'exposed') seem likely. His distinct, and almost instant, change in June this year suggests that something specifically clicked again for him. His game in 2012 was not perfect, but the numbers suggest that there's a lot more positive to be taken than negative. Davis has shown the ability, in three separate, consecutive years, to be a top-notch power bat at first base. Don't insist on letting two months sway you, when the majority of evidence is stacked against them.

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