Monday, March 1, 2010

Is Rajai Davis of the Oakland A's that Much Better Than Fred Lewis?

I got in a heated argument with a commenter on an article on Bleacher Report a couple of days ago. The piece was mostly about Giants general manager Brian Sabean not giving young guys like Kevin Frandsen and Rajai Davis that much of a chance, and that his unwillingness to go with younger players is the main reason why the Giants are going to struggle to be successful in the long-run.

For the most part, I liked and agreed with the article...except for the part about Rajai Davis.

Like I said in my comments, hindsight is 20/20. In all reality, nobody expected Davis to be that good, the Giants especially. Davis was a pickup by the Giants in 2007 in the Matt Morris to Pittsburgh trade and in all honesty, the Giants were more concerned about getting rid of Morris and his contract rather than acquiring anyone. Davis was a nice player, but the Giants weren't expecting him to have much of an impact (he was a 38th round pick after all).

Furthermore, what made Davis expendable at the time was that he happened to be very similar to another player on the Giants roster when he arrived in San Francisco in 2007.

That player happened to be Fred Lewis, a player the Giants drafted in the second round of the 2002 MLB Draft and had high hopes for after solid minor league campaigns from 2002-2007.

Going into 2008, after the acquisition of Aaron Rowand in the off-season, the Giants basically had a choice to make: whom do they go with in left field? Do they go with Lewis or Davis? With Rowand patrolling center and Randy Winn in right, the Giants couldn't afford to have both.

Lewis got off to a good start in 2008. Davis didn't. Thus, Davis was released and he wound up with the Oakland A's. Lewis went on to have a solid year with the Giants in 2008, while Davis posted pretty mediocre statistics the remainder of the season across the Bay in Oakland.

And then, last year happened.

While Lewis didn't have as bad a year as many people would like to believe, he still regressed nonetheless. He struggled defensively (though not as much as I think people would like to believe), lost his spot in left field, and dealt with the endless harping of Giants fans who wanted Lewis to be more aggressive at the plate like fan favorites Nate Schierholtz and Pablo Sandoval (granted, that was never Lewis' style of hitting, but fans still harped about it nonetheless).

As for Davis, well...he broke out in a big way. While he played for a struggling Oakland A's squad last year, Davis earned a spot in center field thanks to some pretty impressive numbers at the plate. In 2009, he posted a .305 batting average, .360 OBP, .784 OPS and stole 41 bases.

As you can see by those numbers in 2009, you can understand why Giants fans would be upset that Sabean released Davis instead of Lewis back in 2008. However, I can give three reasons why Giants fans shouldn't be so quick to thrash Lewis and put Davis on a pedestal:

1. Other than stolen bases and batting average, Lewis' numbers were actually comparable with Davis'. Davis was just luckier than Lewis in 2009.

In 2009, Davis had 41 stolen bases; Lewis had eight. Davis batted .305 last year; Lewis hit .258. So, Davis has been a better base-stealer than Lewis over his career and probably will be so again next year (or at least that's what Rickey Henderson is saying). Also, Davis may hit better than Lewis in terms of batting average because Davis is better at making contact than Lewis (Davis made contact 80.2 percent of the time last season while Lewis only made contact 77.4 percent of the time).

Other than that though, you can really debate how much better Davis is than Lewis.

For starters, Davis benefited from an unusually high BABIP (.361) last season. He had never had a BABIP over .321 at the Major League level until last year. As for Lewis' BABIP, it came down to .348 after it was also crazy high at .365 in 2008. (That being said, Lewis has been prone to high BABIP numbers, for he also had a .344 BABIP in 2007 over the course of 58 games.)

Now, high BABIP numbers aren't necessarily a bad thing (especially with guys who have a lot of speed). Usually, hitters who tend to have high groundball rates are more likely to post high BABIP numbers on a consistent basis.

Lewis' groundball percentage in 2009 was 52.1 percent (the lowest percent of his Major League career). He also posted a 1.96 GB/FB ratio and owned a line-drive percentage of 21.3 percent, the second highest percentage of his Major League career (which explains his drop in groundball percentage).

Now, you think that Davis, a speed demon on the base paths, would have similar groundball numbers to Lewis, right? Not exactly. Davis' highest groundball percentage in his career was 48.2 percent in 2008 (Lewis has never had a groundball percentage under 52.1 percent), and last year he only hit the ball on the ground 45.6 percent of the time.

To make matters worse, Davis sports an unusually high fly ball rate as a speedster (he had a 34.4 percent fly ball percentage last year, while Lewis had only a 26.5 percent fly ball percentage). That doesn't bode well concerning his skill set, and therefore, it would not be surprising to see his BABIP fall in 2010, which would crash Davis' offensive numbers back to earth.

2. Lewis' "patient" approach at the plate is better than Davis' "free-swinging" mentality.

The most interesting numbers in the Davis and Lewis comparison have to come in terms of plate patience.

Davis posted better numbers at the plate in 2009 in comparison to Lewis, there is no doubt about that. However, even though his numbers were impressive, his plate approach might not be conducive to consistent success. As for Lewis, while he might frustrate fans who are used to seeing the Giants' "free-swinging" hitters, his patient, more efficient plate approach might produce more consistent success in the long-run in comparison to Davis.

In 2009, Lewis had a four percent advantage in walk percentage (10.7 percent for Lewis, 6.7 percent for Davis) and even though he had a much higher strikeout rate than Davis in 2009 (28.5 to 17.9 percent), Lewis still had a better BB/K ratio (0.43) than Davis (0.41).

Also, Lewis' disciplined approach at the plate was evident in 2009, especially in comparison to Davis. Lewis only swung at 19.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last year. As for Davis? He swung at 30.6 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. (For a team that has had players swing at pitches that actually hit them in games, I think the Giants would benefit from Lewis' more disciplined approach rather than Davis' hacking mentality.)

Davis may have gotten to have more hits to fall for him in 2009 in comparison to Lewis. However, if he doesn't improve his free-swinging approach and understand the strike zone better in 2010, then it is highly likely that his stats will look closer to his 2008 numbers (e.g. mediocre) rather than his impressive 2009 ones.

3. Davis will have less opportunity to succeed in 2010 than in 2009.

Lewis will have a tough time cracking the lineup in 2010. Every Giants fans pretty much acknowledges that, even Lewis himself. He is playing behind Mark Derosa, Eugenio Velez, Andres Torres and John Bowker in left field going into Spring Training, and therefore, he will need to make the most of his opportunities this Spring Training if he wants to stay on the Giants' 25-man active roster come April. As for Davis, he seems to be the main man in center field for the A's in 2010.

Or at least that's what everyone thinks. In all honesty though, he will have little room for error once the season starts in April. This off-season, the A's signed Coco Crisp and they still have the highly-touted Ryan Sweeney, whom many people project to have a better season than both Davis and Crisp in 2010.

So, if anything, it is very plausible to think that Davis is capable of being Fred Lewis ala 2009. There are a lot of solid, if not better options around him (think Schierholtz, Velez for Lewis in 2009 and Crisp, Sweeney for Davis in 2010), and considering the A's have a lot less invested in Davis than they do in Sweeney or Crisp, Davis is a very expendable player despite his solid 2009.

Can Davis handle the pressure of being the front runner after coming out of nowhere in 2009? Can he produce a good enough start to keep off guys like Crisp or Sweeney, whom A's fans will easily clamor for if Davis does not produce in 2010 like he did in 2009?

Now, we won't know until the season starts, but if I have to guess, it wouldn't be surprising to see Davis be a scapegoat for A's fans in 2010 like Lewis was a scapegoat for Giants fans in 2009.


  1. I like Fred a lot but Davis is a fantastic defender in CF and he's a much better baserunner (though, Fred has been a solidly above average baserunner). Even with BABIP concerns aside, Davis has been a league average hitter in his time at the major league level. His minor league stats were pretty good, too.

    Davis could be the best defender in CF in baseball not named Franklin Gutierrez or Nyer Morgan. That, to me, places him above Fred by a good bit. And like I said, I like Lewis a good bit.

  2. Davis is a good defender in CF, I won't doubt that. However, my main argument with his defensive ability is that everybody treats him like Andruw Jones circa 2005 and Lewis like Adam Dunn. I'm also interested by Davis' huge spike in UZR last year. Lewis also had a huge spike in 2008, but fell back to earth last year. My opinion? I don't think Lewis will be as bad defensively as he was last year, and I don't think Davis will be as good defensively as he was last year either (though, I certainly agree with you he was in the Top 10 defensively of MLB outfielders last season).

    As far as hitting goes, I just don't trust a guy that relies on speed and hits as many fly balls as he does. You're right, his minor league stats are good, and his 2007 certainly wasn't poor either (though it certainly wasn't great like 2009). I also am not a fan of his plate discipline either. It isn't conducive to consistency. He's going to have very good years and very mediocre years with his approach. From the trends I have seen through his stats, I wouldn't be surprised if next year as a down year (though it is likely to be anyways after he had such a good year last year in Oakland.)

    Is Davis better than Lewis? Yeah, he probably is. That being said, I don't feel he is SIGNIFICANTLY better and I don't believe the Giants made the wrong choice in keeping Lewis. With Rowand and Winn, Davis just didn't have a spot on the team at the time, and the Giants had a lot more invested in Lewis. I know that's not a great excuse (and I hate excusing Sabean), but it's understandable.