Monday, July 14, 2008

Chris Davis vs. Hank Blalock (vs. Evan Longoria)

The Texas Rangers are having a difficult time with Chris Davis and his recent production. Not that he’s been horrible, but quite the opposite. Davis has been tearing through his first 64 plate appearances, with an OPS of .983, including 6 home runs, a triple, and 3 doubles. He also has 13 RBI in 17 games, and over the last 7 days he has posted an OPS of 1.014, with 3 home runs, a triple, and a double.

Any team would be happy to have Davis in their line-up, especially when you consider that his 22nd birthday was just this past March, and he’s on-pace for 29 home runs in just over 300 plate appearances (in case you’re interested, he’s on pace for 58 home runs given a full 600 plate appearances, and about 67-68 home runs over 700 plate appearances. Not exactly sustainable rates, but impressive nonetheless). So why are the Rangers so conflicted? Well, it’s mostly because Hank Blalock is expected back from the DL just after the All-Star Break, and it’s hard to tell a 27 year old veteran who has been with the club for years that his spot has been taken by a hot hitting 22 year old rookie.

If you were in charge of the Rangers, what would you do? The overall consensus is that Davis will either take a seat on the bench while Blalock starts, or Davis will be sent back down to AAA until his services are needed later in the year, or even in 2009. He’s been solid at the plate as well as defensively, but can you really hand over the keys to a young guy like Davis when you’ve got a veteran like Blalock coming back? I’d like to argue that you can.

If we compare Davis and Blalock side by side, there aren’t really many good reasons to choose Blalock. Obviously he has more experience, but what kind of experience? He’s never played for a winning ball club, and over the last 18 months he has just 330 plate appearances. His health has become a major concern, and his career OPS is below .800, so even if he was healthy there’s no guarantee he would be very productive. In terms of pure stats, the argument against Blalock is even more convincing.
Obviously, we have a small sample size for both players from 2008, so we should probably try and come up with a reasonable projection for Davis and compare it to Blalock’s stats from last year when he was healthy. Let’s say that Davis is capable of a .260-.270 average, and an OBP of about .340 (his AAA average this year was .333 with an OBP of .402), and his slugging percentage drops back down to non-superhuman levels of about .540 (he has averaged a slugging percentage of higher than .650 since his time in AA in 2007, so .540 is a conservative estimate). That puts him in line for an OPS of about .880, with somewhere between 20 and 30 home runs in 330 plate appearances. If Davis actually does hit close to another 20 to 25 home runs between now and then end of the season, his slugging would be much higher than .540, and he would likely post an OPS of .950 or more. To put these projected numbers in perspective, here’s one more chart comparing them with Blalock’s numbers from the 2007 season, when he posted his career bests in average, OBP, and OPS.
I threw Evan Longoria in there just to illustrate the fact that Davis is in elite company right now. Longoria is the leading A.L. Rookie of the Year candidate (and also 5 months older than Davis), but given the opportunity, Davis could end up posting numbers equivalent to or better than Longoria in his first 330 plate appearances. If a guy like Hank Blalock were on the verge of rejoining the Rays, there’s absolutely no way they would bench Longoria or send him back to the minors, and there really is no reason to do that with Chris Davis.

So is there really any question as to what the Rangers should do? I don’t think there is, and I think the choice is obvious. Even if Blalock comes back and produces at his absolute best without any further injuries, he would still barely be able to compete with Davis. Meanwhile, Davis would be grinding it out in AAA where he has nothing left to prove, or he’d be losing valuable opportunities for improvement while sitting on the bench. The Rangers should either trade Blalock or juggle the defense to work everybody in, but if they are serious about winning (both now and in the future), they’ll keep Davis on the field.

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David said...

As a huge Chris Davis fan, I really hope that he is kept up in the major leagues and gets his share of playing time. I just love his power potential and his swing is so sweet. Though you've made some good points about Davis' production to justify him not getting sent back down to the minors, prospects as good as him have suffered such a fate in the name of maintaining arbitration years. Texas knows they don't have a chance this year, with a negative run differential, oakland still strong after the harden trade, LA playing phenomenally and the wildcard belonging to the yankees/detroit/boston/tampa bay. They'll option Davis back to the minors so they'll have him for longer, and for cheaper, in the future.

Adam G said...

Thanks for the comment David. I think Davis is going to have a lot of huge fans once people realize his power potential. He really does have some amazing force in his swing, and he'll put up some amazing numbers in the future.

While it's true that some teams have kept prospects in the minors for financial reasons (it looks like that's what the Twins are doing with Francisco Liriano), it looks like the Rangers are keeping Davis in the majors for now as their starting first baseman. I think they realize that fans want to see Davis play, and he makes their team better with his bat.