Is the Mets' Ike Davis just not that good?

USA TODAY Sports

For the second consecutive year, Ike Davis is playing horrifically to begin the season.

Last spring, the Mets' Ike Davis was battling a nasty case of valley fever. He claimed at the time that he was feeling no effects, but admitted this spring that he was extremely fatigued. Between that and recovering from a serious ankle injury in 2011, Davis was one of the worst players in the major leagues for the first two months of 2012. One year ago today, Davis was hitting .163/.221/.304. It got worse after that; on June 8, he was hitting .158/.234/.273, with the same five home runs he'd had on May 20. That was the low point; disease out of his system, strength back, ankle healed, whatever else may have happened, Davis hit a robust .265/.347/.565 from June 9 through the end of the season, playing in 100 games, with 27 home runs in just 383 plate appearances.

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That, more or less, was the Davis the Mets were supposed to be getting for all of 2013. He was fully healthy and had a brilliant spring. "Improvement," they said, was "the only possible outcome." If you took his the production from his last 100 games of 2012 and stretched it across 660 plate appearances, that'd be 47 home runs and 119 RBI (if you care about that sort of thing). It had to be pretty exciting for Mets fans.

Well...

After sitting out of Sunday's game (but not in danger of a demotion, per Sandy Alderson), Davis has played 39 games in 2013, and they've been even worse than the 39 he'd played as of this date in 2012. In fact, the parallels between Davis' stat line right now and his line at his nadir on June 8 of last year are uncanny:

Date

BA

OBP

SLG

BB%

K%

HR%

BABIP

6/8/12

.158

.234

.273

9.0%

29.4%

2.5%

.202

5/19/13

.156

.238

.259

9.3%

30.5%

2.6%

.198

That's almost hard to believe, really. But what, other than that health-related storylines (and especially the ones that crop up in spring training) should be viewed with plenty of skepticism, can we learn from this?

One is that there's a good chance in 2013, as there was in the first two months of 2012, that Davis has been pretty unlucky. The Mets as a whole have a line drive rate of 19 percent, ground ball rate of 42 percent, and fly ball rate of 39 percent, and are hitting .275 on balls in play (itself well below the NL-wide BABIP of .292); Davis has nearly identical rates of 19 percent, 43 percent and 38 percent, and his BABIP is under .200. Not all batted balls of a given type are created equal, of course: maybe Davis is simply rolling over the ball and bouncing it harmlessly to second two out of every five times he puts it in play, and missing beneath the ball for harmless pop-ups most of the other two out of five times when he hits it in the air. Sure enough, FanGraphs tells us he hits an infield fly 14.3 percent of the time, the ninth most in the National League. It's certainly not all luck, but the fact that his batted ball rates are so close to the team's and he's been so much less able to convert them into hits suggests that several of his outs, at least, "should" have been hits, and that even if nothing improves we can probably expect more of them to fall in going forward.

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But if we give him the full benefit of the doubt and substitute the team's .275 BABIP in place of his .198 -- that means seven extra hits -- and assume five are singles and two are doubles, that still gives Davis a 2013 line of just .207/.285/.326; less ugly, but his jump from a 498 OPS to 611 would move him all the way from the runaway worst among qualified first basemen in that category to second-worst, better than only Miami's Greg Dobbs. His ballooning strikeout rate -- he's currently on pace to strike out 182 times in under 600 plate appearances -- and lack of serious home run power have been at least as problematic as any bad ball-in-play luck he may be suffering.

Which leads into the second thing it might tell us: Ike Davis (while he's certainly not this bad) might just not be particularly good, as big leaguers go, at playing baseball. It's tempting to put way too much stock in these stretches that are ultimately entirely arbitrary. Look at it this way: Davis had an excellent 383 plate appearances to end last season, but that nice .265/.347/.565 line is sandwiched, from the beginning of 2012 to the present, by 352 plate appearances over which he's hit .157/.235/.267. Altogether, in 735 plate appearances since Opening Day 2012, he's hit .213/.294/.420, the sixth-worst OPS by a first baseman in that span (minimum 600 PA), ahead of only famous disappointments like Eric Hosmer and Justin Smoak.

It takes a whole lot of ability to hit 27 home runs in 383 big-league plate appearances, but going forward, that and two dollars will buy you a Powerball ticket. It doesn't do to pick out the good 383 plate appearances and pretend that we know that those tell us significantly more about who Davis is than the surrounding bad 352 do. Or that his hot start to 2011 prior to his injury (.302/.383/.543 in 36 games) tells us more, or even his solid full rookie year in 2010. Right now, for his career, Davis is now a .242/.326/.440 hitter, good for a 110 OPS+; National League first basemen in 2013 have averaged a 119 OPS+, and were at 116 in 2012. That might be basically who Davis is -- a slightly below-average hitter for his position who plays pretty good defense and is capable of going on incredibly hot and incredibly cold streaks.

Things will almost certainly get better for Davis, if the Mets stick with him. He's got enough of a track record that he can't go on continuing to be this bad, unless there's something hugely wrong with him that no one in the media has caught even a whiff of yet. But the uncanny similarity to his horrible start to 2012, of course, isn't anything like a guarantee that he'll go on the kind of tear he did to close 2012, any more than that tear is definitively better evidence of the kind of player Davis "really" is than his two long slumps are. It all counts, and right now, it all makes it look like Davis is about an average player with flashes of looking like a lot more... and other flashes of looking like a lot less.

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