With his two-hit game Saturday night, J.D. Davis extended his hitting streak to 12 games. After starting the season 0-6, Davis now boasts a .319/.389/.532 slash line. Those numbers compare favorably to his breakout year of 2019, when he slashed .307/.369/.527 in his first shot at consistent playing time in MLB. In 154 games as a Met, a span covering 507 PA, Davis has 25 HR, an .898 OPS and a 141 OPS+.
Originally acquired to be a lefty masher and to take Wilmer Flores’ role on the team, Davis has proven to be capable of bigger and better things than Flores ever produced for the club. Injuries to numerous players early in the season in 2019 gave Davis more of a shot than expected. He got a fair number of starts the first half of the season and generally entered games as a pinch-hitter or as part of a double-switch in ones where he wasn’t in the opening lineup.
In the Mets’ first 103 games last year, Davis had 52 starts and 86 games played. And then Dominic Smith went to the IL with a stress reaction in his left foot and Davis was presented with a shot at an everyday spot in the lineup. At the time of Smith’s injury, Davis had an .819 OPS. From July 27 to the end of the season, Davis slashed .328/.386/.610 in 197 PA, batting in every spot from second to seventh in the order.
Davis ended up hitting righties much better than anyone expected, posting an .886 OPS versus RHP. He also won the hearts of the home fans by putting up the best offensive numbers for a regular or semi-regular Met in the history of Citi Field. About the only thing he didn’t do particularly well was play defense. Davis started the year at third base but his throwing was an issue which prompted a move to the outfield. As a left fielder, he was a very good hitter.
Entering the 2020 season, there were questions about Davis. Perhaps the biggest one was how he would follow up on his breakout 2019. While no one doubted how good he played the previous year, there was the fact that he put up numbers with a .355 BABIP, which is generally considered an unsustainable mark. There was also the question if he would improve any defensively or if he would continue to remind us of Lucas Duda in the outfield. Finally, there was the concern of how the reemergence of Yoenis Cespedes would impact Davis’ playing time. The Mets had an awful lot invested in Cespedes and he seemed likely to get playing time if he was healthy.
We’re used to things breaking in bad ways for a player, especially when there are multiple ones like was the case with Davis. It’s hard to say that a pandemic was a break but that brought the designated hitter into play and that’s where Cespedes was used. The Mets still had the option to use newly-acquired Jake Marisnick in center field and move Brandon Nimmo to left. However, they decided that Davis’ bat was worth more than Marisnick’s glove. So, they began the year with Davis in the lineup with the plan of removing him late for defense.
Of course, Cespedes eventually opted out, completely removing that threat to Davis’ playing time.
Another door opened for Davis, as Jeff McNeil had a bunch of early errors at third base, which prompted the Mets to flip Davis back to the hot corner. For anyone who watched him in the infield in 2019, this was hardly a perfect scenario. But Davis has looked much more comfortable at third base here in 2020. He’s made diving plays and backhanded stops, and his throwing seems significantly better than a year ago.
The broadcasters mentioned Davis’ work with coach Gary Disarcina, a former shortstop who regularly found himself on the leaderboards for putouts and assists. Disarcina stressed to Davis that he didn’t need to make every throw at 100% effort. And the results have been great. Last night’s backhand play was one of the toughest, and certainly the longest throw that a 3B has to make. And Davis delivered a perfect throw, one that was waist high and directly to the bag.
If Davis continues to play defensively at third like he has in his brief time there so far this year, he won’t be switched out for defensive purposes late in the game. That could mean a handful of additional PA this season. And that would be a good thing.
The one thing that needs to be said is that Davis is once again producing an elevated BABIP. If you thought last year’s .355 mark was high, perhaps you shouldn’t look at this year’s total. After Saturday night’s game, Davis sits with a .387 BABIP, tied for the 19th-highest mark in the majors. FanGraphs shows rest-of-season computer forecasts for players, with three different models available. The most bullish of the three, ZiPS, has Davis with a .325 BABIP the rest of the way. To date, Davis has a 158 wRC+ with his .387 BABIP. ZiPS (R) has him with a 112 wRC+ the rest of the season with that .325 BABIP.
A .325 BABIP is still an elevated mark. Now, there are people who can run a high BABIP year-in and year-out. Mets fans have to look no further than David Wright for an example of such a player. Wright had a lifetime .339 mark, including one year with a .394 BABIP in 618 PA. Can Davis be that type of player? Sure, it’s among the possibilities. But one thing to keep in mind is that Wright was on a Hall of Fame trajectory until the injuries hit. Do we want to put Davis in that level?
Another thing to consider is how likely is it for a team to have multiple players consistently run an elevated BABIP. Who else besides Wright was putting up big BABIP numbers? In their time together on the Mets before he left for free agency, a span of eight seasons, Jose Reyes had just two years with a mark higher than .317 in the category. And with his speed, you’d thing Reyes would be an excellent candidate to post an elevated mark. In his seven seasons with Wright, Carlos Beltran only ran one year with a high BABIP. In 2009 he had a .352 mark, albeit in just 357 PA. Beltran had five seasons with a mark below .300 – which is generally considered an average mark in the category.
Do we really think the current Mets are going to feature three players who regularly post high BABIPs? McNeil has a .345 mark in 865 lifetime PA in the majors while Nimmo has a .339 mark in 1,146 PA.
To state the obvious, what McNeil and Nimmo do in the category has no influence on what Davis does. It’s just a matter of the odds being against one player consistently running a .330+ BABIP, much less three on the same team. But if the Braves can have three of the top six players in PA in the NL like they did last year, maybe the Mets can have three of the top six in BABIP, both this year and the immediate future, too.
Coming into this shortened season, my expectation was that with Cespedes holding down the DH slot, that the Mets were going to end up with a LF platoon of Davis and Smith, trying to get both bats in the lineup on a regular basis. But Davis doesn’t seem to be in any jeopardy of being platooned this year. Smith’s hitting well, too, and the Mets need to find a way to keep him in the lineup. But that’s an issue for another article. Right now, let’s just appreciate Davis for his play on both offense and defense so far in 2020.