J.D. Davis is the best hitter on the Mets

J.D. Davis on deck in March of 2019. Photo by D. Benjamin Miller (Public Domain).

In November, I wrote an article titled “the case for keeping J.D. Davis” for my student newspaper. Now, I’m doubling down. This time, because the Mets clearly did keep Davis, I’m going to prove why he needs to be in the lineup every single day.

I’ll start out in a similar fashion — by listing stats: Davis hit .307/.369/.527 last season in 453 plate appearances. Because he split so much time, he was not a qualified player, which means when looking at the leaderboards for things like OPS, he’s not going to be on there. MLB players need 3.1 plate appearances per team games played in order to qualify, so in a 162 game season, that works out to 502 plate appearances in order to qualify. Davis only missed that by 49, but he did miss it.

However, of qualified players, if you add Davis in there, his OPS of .895 would slide right in at No. 32 in the MLB, directly ahead of D.J. LeMahieu, Marcus Semien and Max Muncy. The only players better on the Mets were Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil.

If we look at OPS+, another way of measuring OPS that takes into account external factors like stadiums and leagues, he’s even higher on the leaderboards. An OPS+ of 100 would be considered league average, and Davis finished the year with an OPS+ of 138, which would come in right with No. 16, 17 and 18 finishers Juan Soto, Jorge Soler and the aforementioned Semien, all of whom also got 138. I don’t know exactly where Davis would have fallen among them, but he could be as high as 16 and no lower than 19.

So yeah, he’s a top-20 hitter in the MLB, and in terms of the Mets, just like OPS, he was only below Alonso and McNeil. 

Yes, he didn’t qualify, but 453 plate appearances is by no means a small sample size.

That’s just looking at Davis’ full season, which should already be enough to prove why he needs to be in the lineup every day. But there’s more.

Before the All-Star break, Davis started just 45 of the 76 games he played in. Those 45 starts came in 90 total games for the Mets, so he got the start just 50% of the time. It was capped off by a run of 12 games — 11 of which he played in — where he got just two starts. He was used as a pinch hitter nine times, going 1-for-9 in those at-bats. However, in those two games he started, he went 5-for-9 with a home run.

Up until that point in the season, Davis was doing fine, hitting .279/.341/.468 — respectable, but an OPS of .809 really isn’t anything to write home about.

After the All-Star break, Davis’ playing time jumped, playing in 64 of the 72 Mets games, while getting the start in 54 of those 64 games.

In those games, Davis hit .335/.395/.584 in 233 plate appearances, so more than half of his season total. If this was over the entire season, his OPS of .979 would have No. 8 in the entire MLB, behind the likes of Ketel Marte, Anthony Rendon, Alex Bregman, Nelson Cruz, Cody Bellinger, Mike Trout and Christian Yelich.

Yes, I will admit it’s unfair to do what I just did — take 233 plate appearances and compare them to players who had around three times as many.

But, of all players who had at least 200 plate appearances, his post-All-Star break OPS still ranked No. 18 in the MLB (and No. 1 on the Mets). The four directly ahead of him? Austin Meadows, Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve and Nolan Arenado. The four directly behind him? George Springer, Justin Turner, J.D. Martinez and Ryan Braun.

Davis is completely surrounded by All-Star caliber talent.

It would be easy to say the first half of his season had more natural slumps that every player goes through and the second half didn’t have any major slumps. You could say he just had a hot couple of months, he will come down to earth, and honestly, you could be right.

However, I don’t believe that’s the case. For one, as I’ve already mentioned, he had more plate appearances after the All-Star break than before. The sample size of great play is larger than the sample size of average play (even if it’s just by a handful), that’s just a fact.

It’s also not a random jump. It’s not a coincidence that when he became a regular fixture in the starting lineup, his numbers jumped.

In a Newsday article by Kenny DeJohn from the end of July, Davis is quoted saying essentially what I just spent the last 400 words explaining.

“When I don’t play, I get two or three days off and then I come back in and the first two at-bats, it’s more about getting my timing down and really not being aggressive in those situations to see pitches,” Davis said. “When you’re playing every day, it’s a little bit easier. It’s a little easier on the mind knowing the fact you’re in the lineup the next day, or at least your timing is there every day.”

It makes sense. When every at-bat isn’t life or death when it comes to playing time. When you’re allowed to have an 0-fer and not get sat for five games because of it. When you’re allowed to just play ball without the added pressure of trying to keep your job at the same time.

When that happened, and Davis didn’t have to fight for playing time anymore, he turned into one of the best hitters in the entirety of Major League Baseball.

If that’s not enough, and you ~still~ need more reasons why Davis should — no, NEEDS to be in the lineup every day, well, believe it or not, there’s even more. Statcast loves him.

He’s in the 90th percentile for exit velocity. He’s in the 91st percentile for hard-hit percentage.

He’s in the 92nd percentile for xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average, defined by Baseball Savant “tell[ing] the story of a player’s season based on quality of and amount of contact, not outcomes.”

Out of all players in xwOBA, he’s No. 21 in the MLB and No. 1 on the Mets — yes, he’s even ahead of Alonso (No. 29) and Michael Conforto (No. 32).

He’s in the 97th percentile for xBA (expected batting average), the 91st percentile for xSLG (expected slugging) and the 80th percentile for barrel percentage.

He’s No. 9 in the MLB in xBA and No. 1 on the Mets there as well. As for xSLG, he’s No. 23 in the MLB and No. 1 on the Mets yet again.

One of his only negatives (that really isn’t even a negative) is his strikeout percentage is league average — literally — he’s in the 50th percentile. However, there’s reason to believe that he’s improving in that department, with his strikeout rate dropping over 4% from 2018 to 2019 and 8% from 2017 to 2019. While he may never reach the top-tier percentiles in the K% department, he’s tracking to become at least slightly above average.

Baseball Savant lists his closest player comparison as J.D. Martinez, and I mean, come on! That’s one of the best hitters in the sport, without question.

In fact, last year, they both had a very similar oWAR, with Martinez putting up a 3.9 and Davis putting up a 3.1, though Martinez did have just over 200 more plate appearances to accumulate his numbers.

Last season Davis split his time between left field (585.1 innings) and third base (220 innings). He was bad in both positions, putting up a minus-11 defensive runs saved (DRS) in left and a minus-nine DRS at third. In outs above average, Statcast listed him in the eighth percentile — yes you read that right. 

He’s just flat out bad with his glove. Sure, he’s made some plays, most notably one Willie Mays-Esq catch versus the Cleveland Indians, but anyone can have highlights. The true sign of a good fielder is if he can do it consistently, and Davis just cannot.

What is one thing Martinez and Davis also have in common? They are both, bad, and I mean really bad fielders.

And that’s where the real conflict lies. You might be thinking to yourself how Davis, with the numbers at the plate he puts up, isn’t automatically an everyday fixture in the lineup. His bat should be enough to outweigh his glove. I ask that question a lot too, even once to SNY’s Andy Martino in his “Mets Mailbag.”

Martino’s answer?

“Lack of track record and defense in LF? They like him though, and he’ll play a lot.”

It’s a good answer. I will admit, he does lack a track record and as I’ve said, he’s not good in the field.

I hope he’s right about the Mets liking him, but as it stands right now, no matter how much they like him, he’s blocked.  

As we’ve gone over already, he’s not good in the field, but playing in the National League if they want his bat in the lineup they don’t really have a choice. So, he slides into third and left field, that is when there’s room for him.

The Mets have a stacked infield, and if Davis is their everyday third baseman next season, they could very well have four All-Star caliber players on the dirt. At first would obviously be Alonso, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year and rookie home run king. At second would be Jeff McNeil, one of the best pure hitters in the league who will likely be in the race for the batting title once again. Both of them were All-Stars last season, but shortstop Amed Rosario was not. 

Rosario had a similar year to Davis in that he really flourished in the second half, hitting .319 after the All-Star break. He’s trending up and could really flourish next season, but that’s an article for another time.

And then Davis would be at third, rounding out what might be the best hitting (albeit probably one of the worst fielding) infields in the MLB. But there’s one, sort of big issue with that — a $24 million problem to be exact, and his name is Robinson Cano. 

Cano had one of the worst seasons of his professional career in 2019, putting up the second-lowest OPS and OPS+ of his career. But he’s making $24 million and does have a track record that has earned him the chance to prove his 2019 was a fluke, so he’s going to play. However, going into his age-37 season, there’s a good chance it wasn’t. When Cano plays, it pushes McNeil to third and Davis out of the infield.

So what, he played left field over two times as much as he played third, why can’t he play there in 2020? Well, the Mets are expecting to regain the services of Yoenis Cespedes, the hero of 2015, and someone who if fully healthy needs to be in the lineup.

Cespedes would play left and Michael Conforto, who hit 33 home runs last season, is in the other corner. In center it’s the duo of Brandon Nimmo and Jake Marisnick, but frankly, it doesn’t really matter because Davis can’t play there anyway, he can barely survive in left. Sure, they could move Conforto to center, a position he’s noticeably worse at defensively, but then either Cespedes or Davis would have to play right, something neither of them has ever done in the MLB.

If Cespedes is ready to go, it makes Davis the odd-man-out in both the infield and the outfield. Suddenly, the man with the highest xwOBA on the Mets will be back on the bench.

The Universal DH, something that is on the table for the 2020 season if it ever happens, would be huge for the Mets in this regard — but I already talked about why, go check it out.

Realistically, this is also if everyone is healthy. Cano only played 107 games last season and was riddled with injuries. Cespedes didn’t play a single game in 2019 and played just 38 in 2018. If one of them goes down, it opens up a much clear path for Davis to get playing time.

Injuries are inevitable, and even if these two may be the most prone to them at this stage of their careers, it could be anyone.

There probably will be plenty of opportunities for Davis to see at-bats, as of right now there are a lot of obstacles.

There is a very real scenario where he’s not in the starting lineup on opening day, and after everything I just went through, it’s mind-boggling. 

Sure, it’s a good problem to have — having more quality bats than positions — but it’s still a problem in this case. Specifically, I worry about wasting potential. All the signs point to what we saw out of Davis after the All-Star break in 2019 not being just a fluke but something he is capable of doing over the course of an entire season. All of the numbers back that up, and honestly, so does the eye test.

After the break last season, Davis was the Met I had the most fun watching. Every single time he stepped up to the plate it felt different. It felt like he was the most dangerous bat in the lineup. More than Conforto. More than McNeil. Even more than Alonso.

My favorite walk-off from last season wasn’t the improbable solo-shot from Tomas Nido in the 13th inning. It wasn’t Dom Smith’s three-run home run in the final game of the season in his first at-bat in months. It wasn’t even Conforto’s shot over Adam Eaton’s head to cap off a four-run ninth-inning comeback.

It was Davis’ rope into the left-field corner in the bottom of the tenth. 

Tied at three with the Indians and facing Brad Hand, the Mets had runners on first and second with two outs for Davis. He went down 0-2, taking a first-pitch slider and then fouling one right back into the catcher’s facemask. He then worked the count full, laying off a slider in the dirt and then two-straight inside fastballs. It was already an impressive at-bat, regardless of the outcome.

He fought off a slider, ripped two balls near the tarp behind the third-base bag and then finally straightened it out, hitting a bullet down the line to score Conforto from second. It was a nine-pitch at-bat, and Davis was in control the entire time.

He deserved to win that at-bat, and as the Statcast data shows us, he deserves to win at-bats at one of the highest rates in the MLB.

Oh, and then he gave one of the best postgame interviews in recent Mets memory.

I think J.D. Davis has the potential to become a legitimate superstar, maybe not in the field, but at the plate. He can be just like his Baseball Savant comparison J.D. Martinez, one of the best hitters in the league, but someone who is well below average field.

The defensive struggles don’t stop Martinez from being a perennial All-Star, MVP candidate and someone who won two Silver Slugger Awards in the same year (crazy right? He won for both outfield and DH in 2018, just wanted to throw that in there).

Is J.D. Davis up there with the real super — and I mean SUPERstars like Mike Trout, Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger? No, I’m not going to say that. But he’s right below. At least, he has the potential to be.

Sure, he can’t field very well, but his bat is too good to keep on the bench. I’m going to copy and paste something I said in my first column about Davis back in November because it still stands today. 

“Don’t have a spot for J.D.? Make one.”

I didn’t even realize how good he was then, I just knew he had a really nice, unexpected season. But now I’m certain — J.D. Davis is an integral part of this team’s future. When you talk about Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Michael Conforto, Amed Rosario and others, J.D. Davis needs to be included in that list, perhaps first and foremost.

Even before I started writing this column I didn’t fully know how good he is. I was planning on talking just about his second-half and how it was one of the best in the league, but I wasn’t prepared for what Statcast was going to show me.

J.D. Davis is a franchise cornerstone to build around, and he might just be the best all-around hitter on the Mets.


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