Why Does Ike Davis Need An Alibi?


In a post for ESPN New York’s Mets blog, Matt Meyers wrote a relatively scathing piece on Ike Davis, asserting that he has failed to become the “franchise cornerstone” that people expect him to be.

Read it.  If you haven’t, then come back here.

Got it? Good. Because it’s ridiculous. And here’s why:

Meyers notes that Ike’s return to Coors Field next week ought to stir up emotions, given that it was there that Davis’ 2011 season ended on what was a routine pop up. But Davis started two games there last April, so it seems like this thought may be overstated. For the record, he hit .444/.500/.556. He notes, somewhat reasonably, that when Davis’ 2011 ended prematurely, it set lofty expectations for the now-26-year-old:

"Davis was hitting .302/.383/.543 at the time, and the deep bone bruise, which ended his season, gave fans one less reason to watch a mediocre team.That injury was a curse for Davis in two ways — not only did it end his season, but the timing of it created expectations he appears unlikely to fulfill.– Matt Meyers, “No more alibis for Ike” (linked above)"

Apr 3, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis (29) hits a two-run home run against the San Diego Padres during the fifth inning of a MLB game at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Saying that a .925 OPS is lofty is, of course, reasonable. Only six players have posted such a mark since the start of the 2011 season (list here). The primary issue with raising such a concern, however, is that the last paragraph of Meyers’ article begins “Davis is better than he has shown in 2012”. Taken at face value, that’s true. Davis’ .771 OPS was 20 points lower than the mark he posted as a rookie in 2010, in a nearly-identical sample size (601 PA in 2010 vs. 584 PA in 2012). Mind you though, the issue with that is that Davis’ season was rather dichotomous. He posted a .659 OPS before the break, and a .888 OPS after it.

But let’s suggest, for a moment, that the All-Star break isn’t the best break point. Let’s go back to June 8th. That day, Davis went 0-3 at Yankee Stadium to drop his average to .158. Terry Collins gave him a vote of confidence, saying that Ike wouldn’t be optioned to AAA Buffalo and would be allowed to work through his issues.

Ike Davis hit .265/.347/.565 the rest of the way. Certainly .913 isn’t .925, but the difference is virtually insignificant (a 12-point difference in slugging, over 550 at bats, for illustration, is only 6.6 bases). But how did he compare peripherally? Let’s take a look:

The walk and strikeout rates, like the OPS above, are virtually identical (the differences amount to 1 walk and 4 strikeouts over 600 plate appearances). By all other accounts, Davis’ 2012 appears much better. Especially so when you consider that his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was 74 points lower (the league average hovers just under .300). In fairness, home runs are excluded from the BABIP calculation (balls hit out of the park are, by definition, not ‘in play’). But as a generalization, having a BABIP well-above .300 is considered lucky, as well as the converse.

Fangraphs saved me some time by providing a terribly handy xBABIP spreadsheet (available by download here). The ‘x’ stands for expected — statisticians have determined the rates that different types of batted balls (line drives, ground balls, etc.) typically turn into hits, and we can use that data and a player’s batted ball profile to be able to somewhat objectively quantify if a player was actually lucky. Unfortunately I can’t get the batted ball profile by section of season so I’ll have to use his full-season numbers here (Davis’ full-season BABIP in 2012 was .246). Plugging Davis’ profiles from the 2011 / 12 seasons, we get the following:

So my hypothesis is confirmed: Davis’ .302 average in 2011 was inflated by good luck (and that .265 average in 2012 was deflated proportionally). And that brings us back to Meyers’ quote.  But for what it’s worth, it’s somewhat silly to argue that Davis’ propensity for the extra base hit is a negative. Especially when you consider that his rate of singles (as a % of plate appearances) didn’t take a noticeable jump after June 9th (10.27% before, 10.97% after) even with a 107-point jump in his batting average. All this suggests, somewhat soundly, that Ike Davis was actually a better hitter over the last four months of 2012 than he was over the first five weeks of 2011.

"And because Davis is such a pull hitter (against both righties and lefties), teams can easily shift against him, which makes it extremely difficult for him to get base hits. In fact, he hit just 60 singles last season, which was fourth-fewest in baseball.– Matt Meyers"

Aside from the fact the fact that these two things aren’t connected (correlation doesn’t imply causation), it’s just not true. In 2012, only 27.1%  of the balls Ike Davis put into play were classified as “pulled”. (David Wright, who is often lauded for his opposite field tendencies, has a career 30.1% pull rate). As for the second part, Ike Davis posted a .474 average and .363 BABIP when he pulled the ball in 2012. Colloquially speaking, were teams successfully implementing a shift, those numbers wouldn’t be that high.

For kicks and giggles, we can use that xBABIP to estimate what Davis’ average should have been were luck not a factor. Keeping all else (home runs, ISO, walk and strikeout rates) constant, Davis would have posted a Giancarlo-Stantonesque .295/.376/.596 slashline after June 9th.

"After a brutal start to the 2012 season, Davis rebounded to hit 20 home runs after the All-Star break, but he was still dominated by lefties in the second half, posting just a .585 OPS against them.– Matt Meyers"

This is true. It’s worth noting, though, that he only posted a .493 OPS vs. lefties in 2011, so that .585 is actually an improvement.

So to this point, we see that Ike Davis posted an OPS that was nearly identical to his “eye opening” 2011 despite a BABIP 74 points

Sept 16, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis (29) during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

lower, despite struggling against left-handed pitching, and despite struggling at home (.928 OPS at Citi Field in 2011, .618 in 2012). What we don’t see is how any of this should be viewed as discouraging – after all, we can see that Davis can be dominant while not hitting left-handed pitching or at home. Should either of those change, he ought to perform even better.

"Because Davis was on such a tear during those first six weeks of the 2011 season, many want to believe that is his true talent level. Problem is, we have more than 1,200 plate appearances outside of 2011 that suggest Davis isn’t nearly that good — he’s hitting just .129 with a homer on the young season, once again proving he isn’t the cornerstone the Mets hoped he could be.– Matt Meyers"

No, we don’t. And that doesn’t prove anything. We have Davis’ successful rookie season in which he posted an encouraging .791 OPS. We then have 733 plate appearances over the next two seasons. In 201 of them, Davis hit .158/.234/.273. In the other 532, he hit .275/.357/.559. So we have 601 plate appearances that suggest he can be a cornerstone once he reaches his prime, 532 plate appearances that suggest he’s an elite first basemen (only two first basemen posted an OPS in 2012 higher than that .916, neither in the National League), and 201 plate appearances that suggest he can’t (that happened to immediately follow 11 months away from baseball and contraction of Valley Fever).

So let’s not overreact to Davis’ .444 OPS so far this year, and say that 41 plate appearances mean he can’t be a cornerstone player. Because it doesn’t mean anything. Albert Pujols, long the gold standard at first base, had a .505 OPS and a single home run 6 weeks into 2012, but finished with a slugging percentage higher than that. If Davis is hitting like he is a month from now, we can consider raising flags. In the meantime, don’t jump to conclusions. The baseball gods don’t like that.

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