Fixing a Broken Narrative
Ike Davis, currently hitting .188/.295/.290, is really struggling right now.
Kristie Ackert in the Post says so. MetsBlog’s Michael Baron used the words “Ike Davis Continues to Struggle.” Granted both of these headlines followed Ike’s poor game in Miami, one in which he stranded five baserunners in his first two plate appearances. Barry Federovitch at NJ.com said there’s “overwhelming evidence” that Ike cannot be part of this team in 2014.
Aug 2, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis (29) hits a single against the Kansas City Royals during the second inning of a game at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Well, maybe not. When Ike got sent down in June, he was hitting a pitcher-ish .161/.242/.258. He spent a month in AAA Las Vegas, with reports indicating that he began making better contact and seeing the ball better from pitchers. So, he met the team in Milwaukee early last month and promptly went 3-5 with a walk. In the first 8 games (6 starts) between then and the all star break, he hit a modest .192/.344/.192. No extra base hits, but still plenty to be encouraged by — 7 strikeouts (21.8%), 6 walks (18.75%). The walk rate was excellent, and the strikeout rate (while not excellent) was much better than earlier this season, and better than his career norm (~24.2%).
Since then, he’s been on a tear. In the second half so far, Ike has hit a Joey Votto-esque .302/.464/.488 with a home run, 5 doubles, and 13 walks (23.6%) against 12 strikeouts (21.8%). Worth noting further is that the strikeouts are often coming at the end of long, drawn-out at bats. He’s not swinging at curveballs in the dirt or sliders in the opposite batters’ box. (This comes with a caveat, of course, that Ike hasn’t been hitting against left-handed pitching. Terry Collins has been keeping Davis and Josh Satin to a fairly strict platoon at first base. Ike did, however, draw a 4-pitch walk today from lefty-specialist Tim Collins.) For the overall month of July, Ike put up a solid , if un-first-basemanly .242/.382/.355. Thanks to the on base percentage, Ike posted his first above average month – a 118 wRC+.
By the numbers, Ike Davis isn’t struggling right now. He hasn’t been for about two and a half weeks, and for the week and a half or so before that he had been showing signs of improvement. Ike finished July not only above the league average, but above the average for MLB first basemen (106 wRC+ in July). This brings me to the next argument – the floating meme that Ike Davis sucks. Does he?
Let’s be clear. His May each of the past two seasons has been terrible. He’s struggled in April each time as well. But last season, he followed up two poor months by hitting .265/.347/.565 from June 9th to the end of the season. Ike didn’t get a chance in June, but Ike has seemingly gotten it together in July.
The below chart represents a breakdown of Ike Davis’ wRC+ each month of his career. The overall wRC+ over the past four years for MLB first basemen is roughly 110 (calculated using an average of each season’s wRC+ weighted by plate appearances). This is where the colors come into play. The red months represent when Ike Davis performed below that average, the green representing when he matched or outpaced it. The three yellow months represent months in which he played in fewer than 10 games, which I don’t feel represent sufficient samples for judgment (for example, were Ike to have gone 2-4 with a home run the day after his ankle injury in May 2011, his 82 wRC+ likely would be well on the other side of 100 as his OPS for the month would jump from .672 to .783).
One of the first things we see is that good Ike has been around more often than bad Ike, even over the past two seasons. In the interest of equality, however, it’s necessary to point out that when Ike’s been bad the past two seasons he’s been terrible. It puts the Mets in a tough spot, with Davis being arbitration eligible for the second time this offseason, and likely getting a raise (albeit modest) over his current $3.1M salary. Good Ike for, say $5M, would be fantastic. Bad Ike, not so much.
But what’s important to see here is that Davis has massive potential. He’s had four objectively ‘bad’ months in his career (wRC+ < 90 – the highest of these four is 61, which is objectively terrible if you’re not a pitcher or shortstop). By contrast, he’s had six absolutely dominant months (wRC+ > 140). Should he put it together, Davis has the ability to be a top-20 hitter in the MLB. As it stands, his aggregate numbers represent a roughly league-average first baseman (109 career wRC+).
The question of whether or not the Mets should move on from Ike is a complex one; roughly equal weight can be given to his potential as his inconsistency. In my opinion, bringing Davis back would be worthwhile if for no other reason than to allow Sandy Alderson to focus on the outfield and bullpen this offseason. A strong finish to 2013 should go a long way toward securing Ike’s future for another season, and hopefully building the confidence necessary for him to play well in April.
August 4, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo (44) rounds the bases after he hits a three run home run int he fourth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
You can argue that Ike’s struggles have cost the Mets; they have. But that goes both ways. You’d have to be willing to assert that the Mets’ 42-58 record in the final games of 2012 were so few because of Ike’s excellent play. It’s a broken narrative, built up through streams of confirmation bias and recency. Rumors of Ike Davis being “uncoachable” have swirled, but they seem largely unsubstantiated — coming without name or explanation. If you consider 4 months of poor-to-terrible play over the past two seasons to be sufficient reason for getting rid of Ike Davis, then it’s only fair that you consider 5 months of very-good-to-excellent play to be sufficient reason for keeping Ike Davis.
As it stands, it’s unlikely that the team will be able to acquire a hitter to outperform Ike at first over the course of a full season seems unlikely; even moreso if you give credence to the suggestions of Fred and Jeff Wilpon being unwilling or unable to spend freely this offseason. While Mark Trumbo, a name commonly floated around, seems a reasonable candidate — he’s young, he hits dingers, and he’s arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2014 — it’s worth noting that he shares the same plate discipline issues lumped on Davis. Over roughly identical sample sizes, Trumbo has struck out slightly more often while walking a bit more than half as much. Baseball history suggests that, as players age, those abilities tend not to improve significantly even as power begins to erode. So while you’d get the extra home runs, you’d be trading away a better on base percentage and quite possibly a better batting average long-term.
Also, what no one seems to notice, is that Trumbo only hit .213/.258/.293 with 3 doubles and 5 home runs over his last 59 games last year. Or that Trumbo’s only hitting .216/.265/.411 over his past 49 games this year.
What do you think? Should the Mets try to find a new first baseman? Or is there enough there to give Ike another year?