Chris Davis: Fantasy Post-Hype Sleeper or Bust?

by Eno Sarris

The concept of the post-hype sleeper is often bandied about in fantasy baseball circles. But its meaning is vague and even its very existence can be dubious. Most likely, it’s meant to apply to a player that had a pedigree coming up in the minor leagues that struggled upon facing the big boys at some point – and we all moved on.

Ron Shandler, fantasy baseball prognosticator extraordinaire and member of the inaugural Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Experts League, has his own famous saying that seems apropos:

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Once a player displays a skill, he owns it. That display could
occur at any time — earlier in his career, back in the minors, or even
in winter ball play. And while that skill may lie dormant after its
initial display, the potential is always there for him to tap back into
that skill at some point, barring injury or age. That dormant skill can
reappear at any time given the right set of circumstances.

So once a player shows us his prodigious power or excellent eye or speedy wheels, the argument goes, he can do it again – just give him the right set of circumstances and enough time. We all knew Russell Branyan had big power, for instance; it just took a black hole at first base in Seattle nine years into his career until he got a legitimate shot to launch 30-plus homers in a season. 

Our own Eriq Gardner has countered the argument, calling it merely the remnants of the hype label being “more sticky than people realize.” He points to one article in particular by Joe Sheehan where he put the label on Felix Hernandez, Jeremy Hermida, Anthony Reyes, Andy Marte, and Zack Greinke. Of course, that wasn’t the year Hernandez or Greinke broke out, and it does show the peril of applying the label, particularly in the case of Hermida.

Finally we come to Chris Davis, a player that showed oodles of pop on the way up in the minor leagues (.306/.366/.585 combined AVG/OBP/SLG line in the minors). Davis then exploded onto the major league scene, hitting .285/.331/.549 in his rookie year of 2008. When he fizzled to a .202/.256/.415 start in the first half last year, the hype flew by him like high cheese. Suddenly hype-less, he was sent back in the minor leagues trying to find his mojo. He mashed, was CDavisGrab.jpgpromoted, and mashed some more (.308/.338/.496). Check the Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tool for a graphical representation of his slugging percentage by month last year. Roller coaster!

So, should we affix the post-hype sleeper label on Davis or not? Definitely maybe.

Allow me to explain. In the Shandler corner stands Davis’ power as an example of a skill that Davis has shown and can show again. Throughout the minors, Davis had an ISO (Isolated slugging percentage, or slugging percentage minus batting average) that never once dipped below .257 in a full year; it was a sky-high .279 over 1,345 minor league plate appearances. For comparison’s sake, putting that number up in the majors would land him between Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Reynolds on the power spectrum. Serious artillery there. In the major leagues, that number is still a high .230, with a peak of .264 his rookie year and a very respectable trough of .204 last year. Still, that’s the difference between, say, Nelson Cruz (.264 ISO last year) and Curtis Granderson (.204).

Whether he’s got ‘nice’ Granderson-esque power, or light-tower Gonzo power, it seems safe to say that Davis has shown power and owns it. The ride may get a little bumpy though, as we’ve seen. Does the fact that Davis had a .306 batting average in the minor leagues and batted .285 over 295 at-bats his rookie year mean that he ‘owns’ batting average as a skill? That’s tougher to say.

Beyond the small sample sizes inherent in using one season’s worth of plate appearances, there’s the fact that batting average is not a skill – it’s a result. The skills that go into batting average are legion. There’s plate discipline, contact, and speed – at the very least. So while Davis’ batting average – the result of these skills – has been divergent, his actual underlying component skills have been relatively constant. Check out the similarities in his two walk rates (a low 6.3% in his rookie year and 5.7% last year) and his two contact rates (a very low 68.1% in 2008 and even lower 63.2% in 2009). Those seem pretty similar, and they point to some serious holes in Davis’ game.

His strikeout rates concur (29.8% and 38.4% respectively). That puts Davis somewhere between Mark Reynolds (38.6% last year) and Mike Cameron (28.7%) on the strikeout scale. If he strikes out that often, Davis will struggle to put up respectable batting averages. A player like Carlos Pena provides you with a hopeful future for Davis, as he has similar contact (69.6%) and strikeout (31%) rates, but he also features a nicer walk rate (13.3%), and that selectivity is important. If Davis doesn’t start walking more, he may just end up like Brandon Inge (8.5% walk rate, 30.2% strikeout rate, 71.7% contact rate and a .230 batting average last year).

If power is all you seek, you can call Chris Davis a post-hype sleeper and pick him, although trying to get him closer to his B-Rank (214) than his ADP (172) might still be a good idea. If you are expecting 2008 all over again, you are better off not applying the label and avoiding him altogether.

For more information on Chris Davis and other big-whiffing sluggers this year, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kit for yourself. 

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