Written by: James Clark
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J.D. Davis is an Astros castoff who they traded to the Mets last year for a handful of lower level prospects. A beneficiary of injuries, the 27-year-old Davis was given near full-time at bats and proved what his bat can do. Underlying metrics seem to back up his performance as a breakout player, the only thing holding him back is his below average defense.
According to Statcast’s xwOBA metric, Davis hits among the best of them. He is right behind Max Muncy and just ahead of Marcell Ozuna and Josh Bell. His .383 xwOBA is backed up by a .308 xBA and .548 xSLG. His exit velocity is in the 90th percentile and his hard hit rate is in the 91st percentile. All of this adds up to paint a picture of Davis as a true breakout performer and gives the Mets another power bat to add to an already formidable lineup with fellow breakout Pete Alonso. In fact, Davis is ahead of Alonso in all the aforementioned metrics. The main thing that sets Alonso apart is his elite in Barrel %, where he is in the 97th percentile. Davis is merely above average as he is in the 80th percentile.
The Statcast numbers back up a .307/.369/.527 line to go along with 22 home-runs, 22 doubles, and 57 RBI in 140 games in New York. His minor league stat line in Triple-A from the 2018 season is even more impressive as he hit at a .342 clip and a .988 OPS.
Swing and approach changes are a dime a dozen in baseball articles each spring, but Davis certainly seems to have benefited from a change to the way he hits. His launch angle inched up in 2019 and coincided with an increase in barrel percentage, exit velocity, and hard hit percentage. Davis has a fairly compact stroke for a guy with his power upside, a big reason why he has more batting average upside than previously thought. He also cut down his leg kick significantly and is a much more balanced at the plate as opposed to previous years. With two strikes his lack of a leg kick is even more pronounced employing more of a toe tap. These changes have allowed him to get to his raw power a bit more than earlier in his career.
Davis does not seem to suffer from platoon splits as he hit over .300 with similar power numbers against righties and lefties last year. For his career he has hit lefties better, but not enough to be worried about sitting against righties.
Going forward, Davis should be able to put up a similar .300/.365/.520 line as a full-time player. He should hit 25-30 home-runs for the next five years and help bolster the middle of the lineup. In the long-term he would be helped by a move to the American League so he can DH at least part time.
His strikeout rate (21.4) and walk rate (8.4) were about league average last year, but his minor league numbers suggest these could both creep into above average territory. I don’t see his batting average cratering, which is good since he is not expected to hit 40 home-runs or bring any stolen bases to the table. A .300 average with 30 home-runs is not as common in today’s game, so he brings a unique ability. He is a poor man’s J.D. Martinez, a comparison that at first seems lazy. Another J.D. that was let go by the Astros and thrives somewhere else. However, they seem to be the best comparison in terms of statistics, metrics, and situation.
The biggest threat to Davis is playing time. His defense may be bad enough to keep him off the field and the presence of Alonso and Dominic Smith will not allow to move Davis to first base, where he did log some innings with the Astros. Jeff McNeil is expected to play the majority of innings at third base this year. Davis does have some positional flexibility as he played third base and left field for the Mets last season. However, he was just in the 8th percentile in Outs Above Average and the Mets have a logjam in the outfield with Michael Conforto, Jake Marisnick, Brandon Nimmo, and the return of Yoenis Cespedes.
The possibility of the NL DH this year should give Davis plenty of at bats to prove that his 2019 season was no fluke. . The Mets young hitters combined with a solid pitching staff should be exciting to watch in 2020.