There are plenty of things Met fans would like to forget about the 2010 season. But one of the bright spots was the emergence of Ike Davis as the starting 1st baseman for the Metropolitans. Ike posted a pretty good batting line, giving the Mets 19 homers and a .351 OBP after taking the starting 1B job away from Mike Jacobs’s shambling corpse. About to enter his age-24 season, Ike Davis is poised to be a part of the Mets core for years going forward, however many Mets fans may be overstating his value. On discussion boards and talk radio, some Mets fans were furious that Ike wasn’t even involved in the Rookie of the Year discussion with Buster Posey and Jason Heyward.
Sometimes is large media markets like New York and Chicago, average players are referred to as good ones, good players are propped up to be great ones. As a Mets fan, I’d like to strip away the padding and the rose-colored glasses, and find out exactly what the Mets have in Ike Davis. Building on that, I think it is important to try and determine Ike’s long-term value to the team. Inevitably, there will be discussions about extensions, arbitration, and free-agency, and before the Mets get to that point with their talented first sacker, it is crucial to know how much Ike Davis is really worth, and how replaceable (or irreplaceable) #29 is.
First base is an offense-first position, as most everyone who watches baseball is aware. There are different ways one can come by offense – a player can be Daric Barton or Adam LaRoche, but job one of a major league 1B is to hit. And last year, Ike Davis hit, but not as well as you might think.
In his first major league action, Ike Davis had a wOBA of .345. Sadly, this places him in the bottom 50% of qualified first basemen in the majors. A triple-slash line of .264/.351/.440 tells us how he came about his hits: not a terrific average, fairly good OBP, and a slugging percentage that appears low for the power-focused 1B position. But how does Ike’s skills break down more specifically in terms of peripherals?
Take a look at Ike Davis’s rookie numbers for plate discipline. Ike offers an above-average batting eye, as evidenced by his O-Swing% (27.3% last year), which is well above the league average. (For the record, O-Swing% records the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that Ike swung at.) Also, Ike also saw an above-average number of pitches outside the zone, so it is unlikely that this is just a small sample size at work here. Why do pitchers pitch Ike out of the zone, when he’s able to lay off poor pitches? Perhaps it was savvy pitchers trying to make the rook take a swing and a miss at junk, perhaps it was just random chance, but at this point it is more speculation than anything else. Regardless, despite seeing more pitches out of the zone, Ike Davis managed not to swing at many bad pitches. Davis brings a mature approach to the plate, something that will serve him very well as his career continues, and won’t deteriate as he ages and his physical skills diminish.
One thing that worries me just a little bit, is that Ike failed to make consistent hard contact on the pitches he did swing at – at least compared to many other 3s. Davis lacks top-end power, as evidenced by his low LD% (16.4% – fourth-lowest among qualified 1B in the majors), and unspectacular FB% (40.5%). A 12.0% HR/FB ratio is probably depressed a bit by Citi Field, but that’s no true excuse. Also, Ike’s BABIP has been high throughout the minors, but his batting average last year was only .264. You’d think that would be higher with a BABIP of .321 through last season, which is above league-average as well. What does all of this mean? For starters, Ike Davis does not have the power that is expected of a franchise first baseman…yet. As a young player, of course this could still develop, but if it remains stagnant, there’s no other way to view this aspect of his game other than a disappointment. To be a true franchise 1B, Ike would have to make up for his sub-optimal power with his other skills. And while he has good patience, he’s not the OBP monster that John Olerud was or Daric Barton is. So what about his other talents?
No item of discussion for Ike Davis is more pressing than his defense. By most metrics, Ike had a stellar defensive season last year. No doubt fans saw the SportsCenter highlights; for a while it seemed as if Davis was falling into the stands to catch pop ups once a week. By UZR and DRS, Davis was the second-best defensive 1B among qualified players. While the FanGraphs Fans Scouting Report and TZL were less kind to Ike, he grades out as an above-average defensive 1B, which certainly pads his fWAR (FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement). Only Daric Barton (a very interesting comparable to Davis) graded out as a better fielder across the combined defensive metrics available on FanGraphs. As always, it is important to note that there is just one season of major league data to use when identifying Davis’s strengths as a fielder. It is very possible that the advanced fielding metrics will be less kind to Ike next year, as there is certainly variation in year-to-year fielding results. It will be important to determine whether this kind of defensive performance is the baseline, or rather an abberation.
What about Ike’s value on the basepaths? While relatively insignificant compared to his offense and defense, Ike Davis had a speed score of 2.8, which just happens to be right at the 25th percentile mark. Below average? Yes. The end-all be-all of determining baserunning prowess? Not at all. But Ike tried to steal five bases, and only managed three of them. It is tough to believe he is an average runner (at any position), even if we’re just working from these small data bits.
The last item to consider is potential. It is also important to note that no projection system that I’ve seen thinks that Ike will regress (in terms of hitting ability) this season. Whether it is a small jump (Marcel) or a huge one (Bill James), it isn’t unreasonable to believe that Ike Davis will outperform his age-23 season at the plate.
So what do we make of Ike Davis? Some power, good batting eye, doesn’t make a ton of contact, good defense, poor runner, a bit lucky, and room to improve.
A 3.5 WAR first baseman is an asset, no question. But so very much of Ike’s fWAR came from his defensive contributions. If he backslides with the glove, he’d need to improve quite a bit with the bat to maintain this value.
Even with the value of his fielding, he’s right on the cusp of that bottom 50% in terms of FanGraphs WAR as well, worth about three and a half wins above replacement, placing 12th out of 24. By these measurements, Ike is not a franchise first baseman, yet he is treated by the New York media and Met fans like it sometimes.
I guess the most important thing I want to stress is Ike’s relative value. If Ike remains in the middle of the first-base pack offensively, he stands to be a valuable asset under his rookie contract. Once he hits arbitration, that value will begin to diminish. Once he hits free agency, well, who knows. That’s still quite a ways away. But a .350 wOBA first baseman should not be hard to find, and for cheap. First base is where gloves go to die…if a great bat can’t field any other position, the 3 is the last spot to try before being sent to DH or out of the lineup. Hitters can be found, at least at 1B, for bargain-basement prices. To outperform Ike’s wOBA last year, you didn’t have to be Albert Pujols or Joey Votto…you had to be Ryan Hanigan or Chris Johnson or Brooks Conrad or Coco Crisp (in a smaller # of PAs, granted).
All I’m trying to say, is that you can find a bat, and move it to first base. And you can do it fairly cheaply in today’s MLB. Now, make no mistake about it, there is room for Ike Davis to improve. In his first season in the majors, Davis was worth about three and a half wins, according to FanGraphs WAR. The fact that Ike isn’t liable to rack up counting stats the same way that Joey Votto is could actually help the Mets when they enter Ike’s arbitration years.
I know everyone likes Ike, but it is important not to overstate his defensive prowess or underrate his value to the franchise. So long as Davis is under team control at an insignificant salary, he is a valuable piece on a good team. But as he accumulates service time and his cost increases, the Mets need to carefully consider whether or not Ike Davis will be a worthwhile investment going forward. If Ike Davis develops into an elite first baseman (consistently good for 4-6 WAR a season), then he should be a franchise cornerstone and locked up long-term. But if he doesn’t, then the less expensive options available to nearly every major league franchise should be looked at in his stead.
I like Ike, but I’m not afraid to look objectively at other options when so many major leaguers can be put at first base.