This past summer, an NL Central team, looking for a spark, called up a player from their AAA affiliate. That player turned heads around baseball by hitting 11 home runs over just 163 plate appearances. The performance was astonishing given how lightly this player had been regarded by scouts in the past.
That player . . . actually was Donnie Murphy, a utility infielder for the Chicago Cubs. (Optional sound effect).
Murphy, a career utility infielder, was not taken seriously before his 2013 power surge, and he has not been taken seriously after it either. The Cubs recently resigned Murphy to a one-year, six-figure deal, even though Murphy is in his second year of arbitration eligibility, and had every right to demand that a panel award him more. By all appearances, he is expected to continue in his utility role and contribute only on an as-needed basis.
Fluky power spikes like Murphy’s are hardly unusual. For example:
- In 2012, prospect Tyler Moore hit 10 home runs for the Nationals in just 171 plate appearances. Recalled in 2013 for an encore performance, Moore hit just four home runs in 178 plate appearances, and was below replacement level overall.
- In 2011, former Brewers star prospect Brett Lawrie hit nine home runs for the Blue Jays in just 171 plate appearances. In 2013, Lawrie hit only 11 home runs over the course of an entire season.
And, we can keep going back each year, if you like.
But to our point, at the same time the Cubs were merely bemused by this display from Donnie Murphy, the Brewers witnessed a similar power surge from Khris Davis. In 10 fewer plate appearances than Murphy, Davis also hit 11 home runs.
But the Brewers reacted much differently. Last week, the Brewers traded Norichika Aoki to the Kansas City Royals to open a starting position in the outfield for Davis. Furthermore, because Davis profiles best in left field, the Brewers also decided to ask their franchise player, Ryan Braun, to move over to right field to accommodate Davis.
Are the Brewers wildly overreacting to a small, and quite possibly random major league sample from Khris Davis? After all, even Yuniesky Betancourt hit six home runs in one month this past April.
Actually, I think the Brewers are doing the right thing. Let’s compare some metrics for Murphy versus Davis:
With this context, the Brewers’ thinking becomes more apparent. Murphy certainly demonstrated power in 2013, but that’s about it. His walk-rate was abysmal. He struck out way too much. Even with his power spike, Murphy still had problems generating hits, struggled to maintain an average on-base percentage, and was essentially a one-dimensional offensive player. If Murphy did not hit an extra base hit, he couldn’t do much else.
Contrast that with Davis, who shows much better signs of contributing as an everyday player:
- In one-half of a rookie season, Davis walked at a near league-average rate, and struck out at a near-league average rate, both of which are notable for someone with his power.
- Moreover, he demonstrated a similar ability to get on base in the minors. Davis consistently posted double-digit walk rates, and his on-base percentage over the last two years has been at least .349.
- Davis’s wRC+ of 160 last year was the sixth-best in baseball for players with at least 150 plate appearances. wRC+ summarizes, quite accurately, the sum total of a player’s offensive contributions.
- Davis’s production coincided with an average BABIP, suggesting he was not getting extraordinarily lucky.
- Unlike Murphy, who is already 30 years old and probably in decline, Davis is 25 and two years away from hitting the typical peak age for baseball hitters.
- It’s a minor point, but there is also some difference in the quality of their home runs. According to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, Murphy’s average home run went 384 feet, at about 100 mph off his bat. Khris Davis’s home runs averaged 392 feet at a more typical 103 mph off the bat.
This doesn’t mean that Davis is a sure thing by any measure. Over at Rotographs, J.P. Breen already laid out some of the red flags, which include a high swinging-strike rate and, so far, a below-average contact rate. If you haven’t read that article, you should, and I won’t repeat here what J.P. already said so well.
The bottom line is that the Brewers are not crazy for seeing something they like in Khris Davis, particularly when his attributes play well in a homer-friendly environment like Miller Park. In an earlier article, I did a very rough regression that projected that Davis would continue to walk and strike out at a league-average rate, while possessing the ability to hit around 28 home runs. The much more detailed Oliver projection system over at Fangraphs basically concurs, projecting Davis to hit 26 home runs, bat and get on base at a slightly below-average rate, and overall be a two-win player over the course of a full season.
Ultimately, it will be up to Khris Davis to answer the question posed by this article’s headline. In the meantime, there are good reasons to be cautiously optimistic about his performance next year.