On Sunday afternoon Ike Davis just about single-handedly won the New York Mets the game and series over the Houston Astros, launching two massive solo home runs, including the game-winner in the bottom of the 9th. The two blasts give Davis a team-leading 24 on the season to go along with his 70 RBIs, second only to David Wright’s 76. Ike has rebounded nicely from a dreadful two-plus months to start the 2012 campaign, but his triple stash numbers remain unimpressive at .223/.295/.447, and he has struck out 114 times in 457 plate appearances over 122 games.
Mets brass and fans have had high expectations for their 2008 first round draft pick since he was called up on April 19, 2010. After a successful rookie campaign in which he hit 19 home runs with a .791 OPS, Ike was off to a lightning start in 2011 with 7 home runs and a .925 OPS in 36 games before a freak leg injury in May cost him the rest of his season. It might have been the long time off from facing big league pitching or the case of Valley Fever he came down with in March, but Davis had a first third of a season as bad as Met fans have seen in 50+ years. After receiving a vote of confidence from Terry Collins in late May, Ike hit a low point on June 8 when his average dipped to .158. But things have kicked in from June 9 on, as he has resurged to hit .275 with a .929 OPS and 19 of his home runs in 256 plate appearances. By the end of the season he’ll have a little over two years’ major league experience, and with a .253 career average at this point, Mets management will have to decide if they can live with a player who could potentially hit 30 home runs every year but bat only .220.
New York has had experience dealing with this kind of players before: the original all-or-nothing slugger, Dave Kingman, spent the largest chunk of his career (5½ seasons out of 16) calling Shea Stadium home. Kong hit 154 home runs as a Met, including 37 in 1982 to lead the National League, but hit just .219, struck out 672 times, and only once played more than 135 games in a season. One reason why Kingman didn’t last more than three years each stint with the Mets (or anywhere else, for that matter) was his lack of ability to hit anything other than home runs: when he slugged 37 for New York in 1982, he only hit nine doubles. For all of Ike’s struggles this year, he has almost as many doubles (20) as home runs (24).
Another reason why Kingman bounced from team to team throughout his career was his lack of defensive abilities. He committed 73 errors in 603 games at first base, good for an unimpressive .985 fielding percentage. These were still his best numbers at any position: he fielded .957 in the outfield and .906 at third base. Davis has fared much better at first base, already sporting a reputation as one of the best defenders in the league at his position. His fielding percentage of .994 is identical to that of Met icon Keith Hernandez, who won 11 consecutive Gold Gloves in his 17 year career. While Ike by no means is one of the greatest defensive first basemen of all-time yet, his glove was what saved him a trip back to the minors in May. Lucas Duda underwent a similar struggle in the summer but was not given the chance to get it going with the big club because his poor defensive abilities in right field made him more of an overall liability than Davis was. It was an adventure every time Big Dude went after a fly ball, but Ike could be counted on to make the play just about every time.
Finally, what kept Dave Kingman from being part of any team’s long-term solution was his likeability, or lack thereof. As Jeff Pearlman briefly alludes to in The Bad Guys Won, Kingman was far from the most likeable player around. Ike, on the other hand, is one of the most beloved current Mets next to David Wright and R.A. Dickey. He’s humble, hard-working, and does lots of charity work, including his upcoming “Night with Ike Davis” to raise money to help children fight cancer. Not to mention he’s one of the few Jewish ballplayers and plays in a city with a major Jewish population. This kind of popularity explains why, despite struggling mightily under the scrutiny of a fan base and media that can turn against you in a heartbeat, Davis managed to keep most Mets supporters in his corner until he turned it around.
Every young ballplayer struggles at some point, and it’s very likely that Ike is closer to the .275 hitter he’s been since June 9 than the .158 hitter he was before. There’s a good chance he becomes a potential, if not perennial, All-Star at first base a la Joey Votto. It could also go the other way and he could become an all-or-nothing free swinger a la Adam Dunn. But even if he turns out to have the hitting skills of Dave Kingman, as long as he maintains the glove and popularity of Keith Hernandez, Ike Davis can still be the first baseman of the future for the New York Mets.