It’s certainly been an eventful ride for J.D. Davis since joining the Mets. Acquired to be a depth infield piece and lefty masher, Davis ended up getting nearly full-time play in 2019, with most of it coming in the outfield. And he did just fine against RHP, too. Then when it seemed like he had a starting spot all sewed up, along comes the news that Yoenis Cespedes is progressing nicely in his rehab and expects to come back in 2020. Which, if true, would clearly affect Davis.
After announcing his presence with authority thanks to a two-homer game against the Nats on April 6, Davis worked his way into a prominent role with his new team. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the rest of the season, however. From May 1 to June 2, Davis had just a .588 OPS over 80 PA and few imagined then what his final line would look like. But from June 4 until the end of the year, Davis posted a .337/.395/.581 line over 299 PA.
Along the way, Davis became the club’s best hitter in Citi Field, a place which is normally much friendlier to pitchers than hitters. He notched a 1.078 OPS in home games in 2019, no doubt why the fans embraced him so completely, even with his defensive issues.
And there’s the rub. While Davis’ bat was a fantastic surprise, his defensive output was a little frightening. At third base, he did his best Mackey Sasser imitation, needing to pump once or twice before releasing the ball, seemingly with no idea where the ball might go once it left his hand. And when he moved to the outfield, his routes on fly balls brought up memories of Dave Kingman.
In 220 innings at third base, Davis had a (-9) DRS and in 585.1 innings in left field, he recorded a (-11). UZR had him better defensively at both positions but still as a below-average fielder. Yet, at the end of the day, an .895 OPS will make up for a lot of sins.
There was some question what the Mets would do with Davis, as Jeff McNeil could play both of those positions, too. But it seemed like the org quickly settled on using McNeil in the infield. Davis may still see himself as an infielder but at least this decision gave him some clarity to his 2020 home. Until the Cespedes news came out.
It’s been three consecutive injury-filled seasons for Cespedes and after he injured himself on his ranch, few felt like he would ever be a meaningful contributor to the Mets ever again. But then the positive news started trickling out and Cespedes was working out with the team in Spring Training. It was still an open question if Cespedes would be ready to do the running and cutting required of a professional athlete by Opening Day but most expected he would be available for some action at some point during the season.
No one knew how the club was going to handle playing time between Cespedes, synonymous with the team’s 2015 World Series team and Davis, new GM Brodie Van Wagenen’s most successful import.
Let’s look at the computer forecasts, which ignore playing time battles and focus on how many PAs a player deserves based on age and performance instead. Also, recall that since the season was suspended, Baseball-Reference stopped displaying the Marcel projections. Here are the ones on FanGraphs for Davis:
ATC – 481 PA, .272/.335/.472, 21 HR, 64 RBIs
Steamer – 484 PA, .264/.329/.462, 21 HR, 66 RBIs
THE BAT – 503 PA, .259/.324/.449, 20 HR, 65 RBIs
ZiPS – 497 PA, .265/.324/.462, 21 HR, 65 RBIs
Usually we think of older players having very similar projections from the computer models while younger players have more volatility. So, it’s shocking how close the four systems are with Davis. Steamer and ZiPS have nearly identical lines while all four see OBP, HR and RBIs in a very tight range. Even the playing time range is narrow, with just 22 PA separating the low (ATC) and high (THE BAT) forecasts.
None of the models see him replicating 2019, which is certainly not a surprise. While Davis had a fantastic year at the plate, he did so thanks to a .355 BABIP. The highest balls in play projected by our four models was the .318 of ATC. In the last 20 years, the only Mets player with at least 400 PA in a season to top Davis’ .355 BABIP was David Wright.
So, we’re left with two challenges – how much of a BABIP drop to forecast and how to handle playing time with Cespedes around. My belief is that the Mets would give the starting nod to a healthy Cespedes. It’s just a matter of when or if that creature shows up and how much the Mets would go to the whip once he does. Would they start Cespedes three times a week? Four? More?
Here’s my totally biased prediction for Davis based on a 162-game season
You’ll have more credibility if you chime in now with what you think Davis will do this year. Next up to undergo the forecast microscope will be Seth Lugo.