The Curious Career of Ike Davis

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On Saturday, the Mets’ sometimes-first baseman Ike Davis strained his oblique, potentially ending his season and with it, his career with the New York Mets. Davis has only been in the major leagues for four seasons, yet in that short time he has charted one of the strangest career paths in recent years.

Davis debuted for the Mets in 2010, hitting a respectable .264/.351/.440 while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base. More importantly, many saw the potential for more in Davis. His home runs were towering no-doubters, with an average true distance of 415.1 feet, near the top of the league. In other words, Ike Davis’ bat still had some latent pop, and the Mets’ future at first base looked bright.

In 2011, Davis burst out of the gate, exceeding all expectations with a stellar .302/.383/.543 slash line over the Mets’ first 36 games. Unfortunately, in early May, Davis collided with third baseman David Wright while attempting to catch a routine popup. The collision caused an ankle injury which eventually sidelined Davis for the rest of the season.

The 2012 offseason had more misfortune in store for the first baseman. Davis was diagnosed with Valley Fever, a fungal infection common in the southwestern US which increases fatigue and causes persistent flu-like symptoms. Though he claimed that he was unaffected, Davis was clearly struggling. He hit an abysmal .201/.271/.388 over first half. His play seemed sluggish, his defense rough, and worst of all, he looked hopelessly outmatched at the plate. Mets fans clamored to have Davis sent down to the minor leagues to salvage his swing, but Mets GM Sandy Alderson firmly stated that he would work out his problems in the majors. Ike stayed.

And here is where Ike Davis’s career becomes curious. After several months of futility, Ike miraculously started hitting again. Over the second half, he hit an excellent .255/.346/.542, with an outstanding 20 home runs. At season’s end, Davis had a .227/.308/.462 slash line, and his 32 home runs were fifth in the National League. Unfortunately, Davis’s mediocre defense and the sheer disaster that was his first half cut into his value, and he only recorded a 1.1 Fangraphs WAR for the year.

During the 2013 offseason, the Mets organization hoped that Davis could put together a solid, consistent season. Davis claimed to have overcome Valley Fever, and in the process admitted that the disease had left him ill and fatigued for much of 2012. His strong second half had also generated much goodwill among fans, who still hoped Davis might be the first baseman of the future. But the baseball gods had other plans, and Davis’s tortuous career took another turn.

Just like the previous year, Davis struggled out of the gate. In fact, from March through June, he somehow hit worse than during 2012’s first half – his slash line was an astonishingly bad 165/.255/.250. His swing was off, and his defense slipshod. This time, there was no saving Ike. In June, he was ignominiously sent down to the minor leagues.

Ike Davis (New York Mets)
G PA AVG SLUG OPS OBP HR HR% BB% Line%
2012 First Half 81 295 .201 .388 .659 .271 12 4.5% 8.8% 18.2%
2012 Second Half 75 289 .255 .542 .888 .346 20 8.0% 12.1% 23.3%
2013 First Half 63 239 .165 .250 .505 .255 5 2.4% 10.5% 19.3%
2013 Second Half 40 138 .286 .505 .954 .449 4 3.8% 23.2% 26.9%

Davis was promoted back to the majors in July, and he began to hit – since the All Star break, he has a .954 OPS. Stranger still, Ike Davis has begun to walk – he has a Barry Bonds-like .449 OBP, with only a .286 BA. With his potent second half, Ike has raised his season OBP to a respectable .326. Admittedly, 138 plate appearances are a small sample, but Davis is also swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone, and generally appears more selective at the plate.

Unfortunately, with Saturday’s oblique injury, Ike Davis’s late-season resurgence has probably been cut short. The 2013 season has answered none of the questions surrounding his ability. Now, without answers, and with many new questions, the Mets must figure out what to do with Davis in the off-season. He’s eligible for a raise in arbitration, and with a 2012 salary of $3 million, he won’t be cheap any more. The Mets have big plans for 2014 and onwards as they begin to reap the rewards of their rebuild, but they need to know if Ike Davis fits into that picture.

The most curious part about Ike Davis is that if you piece together elements of his seasons, you have an elite player. 2010 Ike Davis was an elite defender, making numerous highlight reel catches by diving headfirst into the dugout going after foul balls. 2012 Ike Davis was a legitimate power threat, a 30 home run guy capable of driving in a hundred men each year. 2013 Ike Davis (or the little we saw of him) was a walk machine.

Of course, you can’t construct a baseball player by reassembling a stat-sheet. But Ike Davis flashes individual skills – a good glove, plus power, a decent eye – that would tantalize scouts, if only he could put them all together. The problem is the menagerie of mediocre or downright terrible Ike Davises that accompany the good ones. According to FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, Ike Davis was a defensive liability the past two seasons. 2013 Ike Davis has been mostly power-sapped. And of course, one cannot ignore Ike’s simple inability to hit a baseball for the first halves of 2012 and 2013.

Variation in performance is a fact of baseball, but Davis takes inconsistency to new heights. Each incarnation of Ike Davis possesses different – and often mutually exclusive – strengths and weaknesses. If all of Ike’s strengths came together, as they did for a brief moment in 2011, he could be an All-Star. But if he continues to struggle to put things together, he could find himself out of a starting job. The question the Mets need to answer is – which Ike Davis will turn up in 2014?

  • getsbybuckner

    Very well done, but what’s missing here is any perspective at all on Ike Davis the young man trying to mature as a MLB ballplayer. The fact is that since May 11 ankle injury, he has gone through — and is still going thru — a very heavy testing of his intestinal fortitude. When he messed up his ankle, he was on a roll. The injury took a lot longer to heal than such injuries are supposed to, so much so that next spring training, it was still very tender. Graft the valley fever onto that. He works thru that, and eventually finds his stroke, and he thinks it’s gonna be easystreet after that. Then 2013 starts and he finds it’s not that easy. He has to re-learn his pitch selection from scratch. Clearly whatever he was told to do while in the minors had an effect, because he stopped swinging at bad pitches. He may have been on the verge of a breakthru when his oblique went out. So we’ll never know. Bottom line, I like guys who’ve been tested. When you learn stuff the hard way, it sticks with you. I predict great things for him, whether it says Mets on his jersey or something else.

  • calamityfrancis

    fantastic article and right on the money. personally, the mets need to let ike go. if he succeeds elsewhere, so be it. the mets have given him ample opportunity to show his ‘real’ self and they can’t take any more chances like this if they wish to contend next year, which is the stated plan according to Alderson.