Perhaps it’s a miracle that people are even talking about Matt Davidson in late March 2018, just days before his 27th birthday. The right-handed hitting third baseman spent the better part of eight years in the minors prior to getting his first real taste of MLB action last year with the White Sox. Along the way there were numerous points where Davidson seemed destined to spend the remainder of his professional career taking bus trips to cities like Lehigh Valley and Gwinnett.
Davidson was drafted in the first round by Arizona all the way back in 2009, and it took him four years to record his first MLB at bats (all 76 of them) with the Diamondbacks in 2013. Davidson was then dealt to the White Sox after the 2013 season and spent two full seasons in Triple AAA with the Charlotte Knights in 2014 and 2015.
Davidson’s career appeared to be sputtering at this point, as the formerly adept minor league hitter posted back-to-back seasons with wRC+ scores well below 100. His batting average over those two years was a meager .201 and his slugging percentages were struggling to reach the high 300s. But fortunately something clicked for Davidson in 2016. His strikeout rate went down, power went up and overall production soared, with a 128 wRC+ in 326 plate appearances in the first half with Charlotte.
Davidson’s strong play was rewarded with a mid-season call-up to Chicago. His debut came in a June 30th game against Minnesota. Davidson earned a hit on his second at bat and, while rounding first base, tripped and broke his right foot. Out of the rest of the season. Ouch.
After an off-season of recovery Davidson came to 2017 spring training with something to prove and earned a starting spot out of the gate. He then proceeded to dazzle (/befuddle) with one of the most all or nothing approaches in all of baseball. The guy swung hard. When he made contact, the ball went far, evidenced by his 26 home runs in 443 plate appearances. But he didn’t make contact nearly enough, with the second highest strikeout rate in baseball at 37.2%.
Players like Chris Davis and Joey Gallo strike out a ton but manage to maintain productivity by walking a lot. Not Davidson. His walk rate was a measly 4.3%, and his 0.12 BB/K ratio was the second worst in baseball behind teammate Tim Anderson. When you rarely walk and strike out a ton, you need to be really good at something else. Fortunately Davidson is really good at making at hitting the ball hard when he does hit it.
Davidson’s 38.2% hard hit rate was 43rd among 216 hitters (~80th percentile) with at least 400 plate appearances last year. More impressively, his barrel rate per batted ball event of 15.4% was ninth among hitters with at least 100 batted balls. That, combined with his 46.5% flyball rate last season, led to a lot of hits to deep parts of the ballpark.
As we can see by the above spray chart, Davidson didn’t have very many cheapies. Most of his 26 home runs cleared the fence with room to spare, and he had quite a few warning track flies that could have been something more if the weather conditions or the stadium were slightly different. Over a full season of plate appearances I would feel confident in projecting Davidson for 35 home runs (he was on pace for 37 over 630 plate appearances last season) given his inclination for flyballs and the authority with which he hits the ball.
Davidson is definitely a subscriber to the “flyball revolution”, highlighted by players changing their swing plane to induce more flyballs. They often accomplish this by shifting their swings to an uppercut trajectory, thus increasing the launch angle of the ball off the bat. The upshot to this method is that it allows players to drive pitches in the middle to lower part of the strike zone out of the ballpark. Fangraphs writer Jeff Sullivan discovered that all of the home run gains in 2016 compared to 2008-15 came in the middle to lower part of the strike zone, while home runs per swing actually decreased in the upper third of the plate.
This is pretty logical. Taking an uppercut swing approach will naturally take the path of the bat through the lower part of the zone. However, it can potentially make hitting pitches up in the zone more awkward.
Matt Davidson is a test case example of this phenomenon. The still image to your right is how Davidson typically finishes his swing, with the bat head far above his own head. Davidson hit a home run against the Chicago Cubs earlier this spring displaying a perfect example of his signature swing. This home run from last season is another great example. Notice that, in addition to his uppercut swing, Davidson brings his hands back as the ball is being delivered. This motion creates additional torque and allows for greater force at the point of impact.
Let’s take a look at Davidson’s distribution of home runs around the plate last season. The below image is from the catcher’s perspective:
Notice how 23 of Davidson’s 26 home runs came in the lower two thirds of the strike zone. One came in the upper third! In particular, Davidson displayed a distinct inability to homer on up-and-in pitches, going 0/14. Theoretically this makes perfect sense, as it would be very difficult to hit a high and tight fastball with a looping, uppercut swing.
It’s here where the problems in Davidson’s approach develop. Not only is he not generating power on pitches up in the zone, he is often not hitting them at all. Based on the image below, Davidson’s whiff rate is healthily above 20% in each quadrant in the upper third of the strike zone as well as the areas directly above the strike zone. Conversely, he is fairly adept at making contact at pitches low in the zone, particularly those on the inside part of the plate.
Recall that Davidson had the second worst strikeout rate in baseball last season. The reasons why are starting to become clear: he can’t hit pitches up in the strike zone. More specifically, he can’t hit fastballs thrown up in the zone.
That’s kind of funny to think about it, because high fastballs are usually thought of as some of the easiest pitches to crank out of the yard. Quite the opposite for Davidson. He whiffed on 17% of fourseamers thrown his way in 2017 and had a brutal 161 batting average and 329 slugging percentage against them. When you combine that with already above average whiff rates on breaking pitches, you get a hitter that is really making life difficult for himself.
Davidson is a very one dimensional hitter. At one point he learned that selling out for hard contact on pitches low in the zone was an easy way to get home runs. Kudos to him, because not every player can do that. However, at his current strikeout and walk rates, Davidson is not a viable MLB hitter, even with his 35-home run power (his wRC+ last year was 83). He needs to bring that BB/K ratio from the low 0.10s to 0.25-0.30 range before being taken seriously overall and in fantasy.
I don’t suspect that a swing overhaul will do Davidson much good. He’s been a high strikeout rate, high flyball guy going well back into his minor league years. But a keener eye at the plate could do him wonders. While he’ll always struggle with fastballs in the upper third of the zone, he needs to start laying off the ones that are would-be balls. Consider that in the quadrants directly above the strike zone, Davidson swung at 66 of 119 pitches in 2017. That’s a chase rate of 55%. Turning those inevitable swinging strikes into balls would help his plate discipline immeasurable, and likely result in better pitches to hit later in the at bat.
To leave this post with a hopeful tinge, Davidson is having an insane spring training. In 60 plate appearances over 17 games he’s slashing 358 / 433 / 679 and he leads the league with 18 RBIs. Most importantly, his plate discipline looks good with only 12 strikeouts (20% rate) and seven walks (12%). Considering that there wasn’t a single 17-game stretch where Davidson’s strikeout rate went below 25% last year, I’m hopeful that he’s turned the corner somewhat.
If Davidson can bring his strikeout rate down the to 30% range, and bump his walks into the high single digits, he becomes a very intriguing fantasy player, as few can inflict damage to baseballs like he can. Think Khris Davis-like upside if everything goes well. Otherwise he’s the AL version of Keon Broxton, just without the speed. Interested fantasy minds should track his plate discipline going forward, particularly on pitches above the zone. If Davidson is going to improve his game, it will have to come there.