Is Ike Davis having a good rookie season?
His name is brought up in rookie of the year discussions, but not as a serious contender. Davis is mostly mentioned just to be part of the conversation — as in, Keith Hernandez will say on air, “. . . but Ike should be in the conversation.” I suppose that’s just a polite way of saying Davis shouldn’t win, but he’s allowed to participate and gets an “honorable mention” ribbon at the end.
San Francisco’s Buster Posey and Atlanta’s Jason Heyward are in a class above Davis, and that all seems to be pretty clear to everyone. But while he clearly shouldn’t be rookie of the year — he’s not even the best rookie on his own team — is Davis having a good first season otherwise?
Well, it can be difficult to say. While Davis’ batting average is a non-impressive .247 and he’s struck out 109 times, he’s offset that somewhat by walking 46 times and hitting for 69 extra bases. He’s second on the Mets in both home runs and walks. His on-base percentage is a bit below average — .324 against the league average of .331 — but his slugging percentage is a bit above average — .419 in a league slugging .411 — which gives him an OPS of .743, one point higher than the league average of .742. By just about every measure of offensive contributions, Ike Davis has been a completely average at the plate. Go ahead, look some all-encompassing offensive stat up right now. You can even make up your own. Whatever it is, Davis will be right around average.
On the other hand, Davis’ defense at first has been rated as well above-average. John Dewan’s plus/minus system credits Davis with making 17 more plays than the average first baseman would, saving the Mets 14 runs on defense. UZR credits Davis with saving over 7 runs with his glove, the best mark in the majors by that system. The advanced metrics also like Ike, putting him among the best around the bag at first.
So, if Davis is an average hitter and a good defender, that makes him an above-average player, right? And that means he’s having a great rookie season, if he’s above-average as a rookie, right?
If we accept that Ike Davis is an “average” hitter — and he has been just that — this would mean he needs to have also contributed an “average” amount with his glove in order to be an “average” player. Even though we just said he’s above-average as a defender at first base, that’s not quite the same thing as contributing an above-average, or even an average, amount defensively. First basemen just don’t do as much work as other position players on that side of the ball.
To put it in perspective: For the year, Davis has recorded 75 unassisted putouts on ground balls, 73 assists, and has caught 67 balls in the air. In addition, Fangraphs.com says Davis has also scooped 17 bad throws. All of that comes to about 9.0% of the Mets non-strikeout out total — that’s not a high percentage of the team’s out total. For comparison, Jose Reyes has created 374 of the Mets outs at shortstop, 15% of the team total. Angel Pagan is responsible for a bit over 12% of the Mets outs with his 296 putouts and 8 outfield assists. The 9.0% of the outs Davis has recorded is less than every position except for the catchers and pitchers, and maybe the Mets left fielders.
Compared to the other defenders around him, Ike Davis — just like all first basemen — has not contributed an average amount defensively. He’s certainly above-average for first base, but still below-average for ALL positions — which implies that he has MORE responsibility as a hitter than, say, a shortstop would. Because first basemen just don’t do all that much defensively, they NEED to hit to make up for it. And they need to hit a lot.
Davis has hit. He hasn’t hit a lot. So while he remains an average hitter and a plus with his glove at first, he is not a better-than-average player. Fangraphs.com puts him at 1.6 Wins Above Replacement through 111 games, an average rate; Baseball-Reference put Davis at 0.9 WAR, a below-average number.
So while Ike Davis might not be having a good year overall, that’s not the question. The question is still: Is Ike Davis is having a good rookie season?
Here is where things are a bit more hopeful. For starters, Davis (.247/.324/.419, 15 HR, +7.4 UZR) is having the second best season among the three rookie first basemen seeing serious playing time this season. Gaby Sanchez (.290/.351/.473, 15 HR, +0.1 UZR) is having a better year than Davis for the Marlins, while Justin Smoak (.198/.288/.336, 10 HR, +0.7 UZR), the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade, is having a far worse one. But notice that Sanchez is three years older than the other two. That’s important.
For a fuller frame of reference, here are some other current first basemen’s rookie seasons, including Baseball-Reference’s WAR:
- Derrek Lee, age 21 — .233/.318/.414, 17 HR, 29 2B, 0.4 WAR
- Mark Teixeira, age 23 — .259/.331/.480, 26 HR, 29 2B, 0.2 WAR
- Joey Votto, age 24 — .297/.368/.506, 24 HR, 32 2B, 3.0 WAR
- Prince Fielder, age 22 — .271/.347/.483, 28 HR, 35 2B, -0.5 WAR
- Todd Helton, age 24 — .315/.380/.530, 25 HR, 37 2B, 2.5 WAR
Notice that the two players who had the best seasons, Helton and Votto, were both the oldest ones on the list. Teixeira’s season looks decent, but he was playing in a hitter’s park in Texas, and that inflated his numbers. Hence the low WAR. Fielder’s rookie year looks good, too, but he also grounded into 17 double plays, didn’t run the bases well, and played awful defense — you know, the sort of things you’d expect Prince Fielder to be bad at. Derrek Lee struggled as a 21-year-old in Florida, and most of his value came from reaching base on errors. The two 24-year-olds had the best rookie seasons, just like the oldest rookie first baseman is having the best season this year.
I don’t think this is a coincidence. I haven’t studied this, but I’d guess that baseball players mature faster defensively than they do offensively. The quality of the opposing pitchers gets better and better as competition improves, making hitting more difficult; I don’t imagine it gets that much tougher to catch baseballs as you move through the minors and up into the big leagues. I would guess that major league players in their early-twenties generally play better at defense-first positions, like shortstop or center field, because playing defense in the minors isn’t that different from playing defense in the majors, if it is at all. Ruben Tejada is a decent example: he isn’t in the major leagues because he’s putting on a laser show. His glove is ready; his bat isn’t ready for AAA.
Because of that, I suspect that first basemen — due to the offensive nature of the position — mature slower than other position players. I think this means that Ike Davis’ middling year at the age of 23 might be better than it seems. Gaby Sanchez is having a better season, true, but who would you rather have on your team for the next five years?
So, on one hand, Davis hasn’t been all that great this year. He’s been over-hyped a bit, which should be expected seeing that the last everyday players the Mets developed — David Wright and Jose Reyes — have now played a combined 14 season in the majors. I might be wrong about this, but I also think Davis the first rookie first baseman in Mets history since John Milner in 1972 . . . so it’s been a long time since we’ve had a shiny, new first baseman. We Mets fans get excited about these sorts of things.
That being said, Davis is holding his own as a 23-year-old, impressive considering that this is only his second full professional season. When he hits the ball, it goes a long way. He walks a little bit, he plays nice defense, and he’s young. He might not be rookie of the year, but this is a nice rookie season from Davis so far. It’s a reason to believe.