Matt Davidson was not good last year. He got 443 plate appearances in his first full MLB year on a rebuilding White Sox club, and it didn’t go well as he posted a WAR of -0.9. That mark was seventh-worse in MLB for position players with at least 400 PA. There’s little mystery how he got there, as he combined DH-only caliber defense with a paltry 83 wRC+.
Davidson achieved that uninspiring number by hitting like a three-true-outcomes guy without the walks, more or less a poor man’s Chris Carter. Good news first: last year, he ran a pretty decent ISO of .232, putting him close to good-to-great hitters like Francisco Lindor, Anthony Rendon, and Anthony Rizzo, cracking 26 homers along the way. His raw strength is very real: he blasted a tape-measure 476-foot moonshot out of Wrigley with a 111MPH exit velocity in July. Big power is a good trait to have, but it’s been devalued in today’s game, where guys like Carter and Logan Morrison can hit 35+ homers in a year and then can’t find contracts of even $5M the following offseason.
Still, significant pop is necessary for a high offensive ceiling, so what’s holding Davidson back? In a word, strikeouts. He struck out a horrifying 37.2% of the time in 2017, second-most in the majors. Unsurprisingly, his whiff rate was a scary 16.3%, sixth-highest among his peers; for reference, that’s identical to how often hitters swung and missed against Andrew Miller last year. The walk rate that keeps most K-prone sluggers’ OBP somewhat afloat wasn’t in evidence, as Davidson walked only 4.3% of the time. You won’t be shocked to find that he finished second-worst in K/BB with an ugly 0.12. Although he did hit the ball hard (we’ll come back to that), his flyball-heavy batted ball profile and below-average speed kept his BABIP suppressed to .285. That mark was in close agreement with his xBABIP of .283.
The astronomical K% and below-average BABIP held him to an ugly .220 AVG, which combined with the poor BB% led to a truly abysmal OBP of .260, second-worst among hitters with 400+ PAs. The only guy worse in that column was Rougned Odor, who has a similar offensive profile, but at least he can partially blame a particularly unlucky .224 BABIP.
Looking at last year’s stats, there appears to be approximately zero reason for optimism for Matt Davidson. He hit for power well, but was near the top of all the peripheral leaderboards that you really don’t want to be at the top of. So why is this post being written at all? In short, Davidson seems to have turned over a new leaf this spring.
Now, I know the sabermetric kneejerk reaction to that last sentence: spring training means nothing and spring training stats mean less than that. But that’s not entirely true, as this excellent piece in the Economist way back in 2015 details. If you don’t want to read the whole piece, that’s fine, because it can be summed up very briefly: a hitter’s strikeout rate in spring training actually has a pretty high correlation with their strikeout rate in the regular season. Of course, one of the chief objections to drawing conclusions from spring training stats is the tiny sample sizes with which we’re working. Fortunately, strikeout rate is one of the fastest-stabilizing peripheral rates there is; Fangraphs itself puts the threshold for stabilization of strikeout rate at about 60 PA.
That piece was linked somewhere recently and I read it for the first time. A couple days later, being entirely starved for any form of baseball through this long winter, I reached the rock bottom of scouring the spring training stats of the team I supported, the White Sox. To my own surprise, there was actually something interesting buried there; as you might guess, it was in Matt Davidson’s stat line.
Luckily for us, and this piece, Davidson’s played the most of any White Sox this spring, totaling 60 PA as of March 20. He’s struck out twelve times, a K rate of 20%. He has walked seven times, for a walk rate of 11.7%. In this small sample, he’s almost halved his strikeout rate and nearly tripled his walk rate from 2017. On the one hand, that sounds like an insane improvement that cannot possibly be maintained; on the other, those rates from spring training are by themselves quite unremarkable for a major league hitter. Using BBRef’s summed 2017 stats to calculate league-wide rates, 20% K and 11% BB would have both been slightly better than average league-wide in 2017.
A significant walk rate improvement wouldn’t actually be terribly surprising. If you peruse Davidson’s player page, you’ll find that before last year he never posted a BB% worse than 9.1%, ranging up to 12.0%, from Double-A onwards, a total of five seasons spent mostly at Triple-A plus a month in the majors with Arizona. His walk rate at least doubling this coming year wouldn’t be coming out of left field; rather, it would be him returning to the player he has been in that sense for pretty much his entire professional career minus last year. It will probably come down from 11.7%, given that MLB pitchers likely have better control than those he’s faced this spring, but still, a big jump in walk rate seems likely for him this year.
That strikeout rate is a different animal, though. He’s always struck out a lot, never posting a K rate below 20% at any stop in the minors, and the whiff rate mentioned previously supports that. On the other hand, the sample size is now at the point where this being a complete fluke is pretty unlikely. Is this a real improvement or a mirage? I don’t know, and we don’t have plate discipline numbers in ST to see underlying patterns, but according to Davidson himself, making more contact is exactly what he’s trying to do. It sure seems like he’s succeeding in that thus far. As another small data point, he doesn’t seem to have a pattern of ST flukes in K rate, as in 58 PAs during last year’s spring training he struck out in 37.8% of his plate appearances, a number that echoes his full-season 37.2%.
This wouldn’t be as interesting a case if Davidson did nothing well offensively. He’s a large and very strong man, which is why he hasn’t just been released by the White Sox years ago. Take a look at his contact profile. Basically, last year, he pulled balls, hit more fly balls than ground balls, and vaporized balls in to play, with a quality-of-contact triple-slash line of 15.7% Soft/46.1% Med/38.2% Hard. His HR/FB% was a robust 22.0%, rubbing statistical shoulders with established sluggers like Nelson Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion. In short, when he actually did hit the ball, he looked for all in the world like a poster child for the fly ball revolution. Those underlying numbers hint at a lot more offensive potential than anyone outside of the White Sox organization sees in him, if he could just reduce that giant 32.9 K-BB%.
Now he’s showing signs of significant improvement in that fatal flaw of plate discipline. It doesn’t seem like the improvement in K% and BB% thus far in spring training has cost him much in power, considering that he’s demolished ST pitching to the tune of .358/.433/.679 (1.113 OPS & .321 ISO). Obviously, he’s not going to keep hitting quite that well, but the still-rebuilding White Sox aren’t about to outright bench or demote him either. Maybe it’s all a lot of noise, and he’ll be bad again this year. Or maybe Matt Davidson, at the age of 26, is about to be the Next Big Breakout™. Just as a reminder, it took J.D. Martinez until 26 to figure it out and become the “King Kong of Slug”; Justin Turner was 29-year-old replacement-level utility infielder who suddenly blossomed offensively in 2014; Jose Bautista was almost 30 before he turned into a nightmare for AL pitchers in 2010. So, here’s an prediction I would have laughed off for 2018: Matt Davidson is about to bust out in a big way.
UPDATE 3/29: Davidson hit three homers on a cold day in Kauffman Stadium, every single one of them with a 114+ MPH exit velocity. He also walked and did not strike out. Jump on the bandwagon now while there’s still room.