Future Expectations: Matt Davidson

The one that got away. Can Matt Davidson emulate CarGo's success in the majors?

Now that Dan has retired from the 'Pit, I'll do my best to help fill his giant shoes in the minor league analysis department for the next couple of months.

Since it looks like we're still going to be having Minor League Recaps, I thought I would try to do something a little different for my weekly stories. I wanted to basically spend my time focusing on one particular prospect of interest, sort of like the Trevor Bauer story about a week ago, but also try to get an idea of what a reasonable expectation of the prospect would be once he reaches the majors. Of course, this also means I'll pretty much only be looking at our more elite prospects. But I thought it might be valuable for readers to get a more in-depth look at each of the prospects we might be able to see in the next couple of years.

I will try to incorporate both scouting analysis and statistical comparisons, but for those of you who have read what I've written in the past, it should come as no surprise that I will lean a little more on the statistical side.

And of course, Dan and I will sometimes have drastically different expectations for prospects, so plenty of my comments will probably not be shared by him. That is, after all, half the joy in prospecting :)

Background

The first prospect I want to take a look at is Matt Davidson. Davidson is easily the best hitting prospect our system has seen since Carlos Gonzalez (who will always be "the one that got away" for me). One of the reasons why I find this absolutely fascinating, is that both Davidson and Gonzalez represent members of an interesting group of prospects I like to call "teenagers who rake". The theory is simple. If you are a teenager, and you hit exceptionally well for a full-season minor league squad (which is A ball or higher) then you are almost certainly going to be able to make it to the majors and produce. For instance, in 2005, CarGo posted an 860 OPS in the Midwest League as a teenager. Five years later, he hit a 974 OPS for the Rockies in the majors. That same year, Davidson posted an 875 OPS in the Midwest League, also as a teenager.

That age 19 season pretty much launched Davidson onto the prospect map. Prior to the 2010 season, Baseball America didn't even have Davidson listed among the Dbacks Top 10 prospects. After his monster year, Baseball America had Davidson among its Top 100 prospects, just eking in at 99th overall.

Needless to say, I was incredibly excited to see Davidson dominate the Midwest League, and I had high hopes for him going into 2011. Then he proceeded to post an 817 OPS, while striking out in nearly 25% of his plate appearances. In the hitter's paradise known as the California League. Definitely not bad for a 20-year-old at the A+ level. But also a little bit underwhelming.

During 2011, Davidson pretty much alternated every other game with Bobby Borchering at 3B. Was the constant on-and-off defensive switching hampering Davidson's offensive game? Was his focus on improving his defense at 3B affecting his hitting? We'll probably never know, but for whatever reason, Davidson's bat did not set the world on fire, as I thought it would in 2011.

2012 AA Monster

Then the offseason came around, and slowly but surely, positive reports started leaking in about Davidson. I've always felt that Arizona prospects don't get close to as much attention as other team's prospects. Perhaps our affiliates just aren't located in easy-to-access areas. Perhaps it's just an extension of the general lack of coverage at the national level for Dbacks baseball. It doesn't help that almost all the national prospecting attention directed towards the Dbacks falls on our cache of amazing pitching talent. And rightly so of course. But news about Davidson was largely non-existant until the offseason came along. However, the news was worth the wait.

Davidson made an appearance on Keith Law's annual Top 100 Prospects Ranking at 82nd overall. Law made a noteworthy comment that Davidson had improved his glove to be average at 3B, and in fact had a chance to be above average. Baseball America was less optimistic, but still came to the conclusion that Davidson should be able to handle 3B. Baseball America ended up placing Davidson at 97 overall prior to this season.

This was all great news! Davidson's biggest question mark as a prospect was always whether he would be able to stick at 3B, or be forced to move to 1B. Needless to stay, being able to stay at 3B would vastly improve his value. Even if he were only a slightly below average defender at 3B (say, -5 runs), that'd still make Davidson a very valuable asset.

And seemingly, with his defensive questions partially answered, Davidson has been able to go back to playing toward his strength, which is of course, "absolutely mashing the baseball." Davidson has been putting up absolutely absurd numbers at AA this season for a 21 year old. Through 200 PA, Davidson has a triple slash of .277/.387/.526 for a wRC+ of 161 (which means he is hitting 60% better than league average). And this was before Davidson's 11th HR of the year yesterday.

Only three other prospects, of the same age or younger, in all of AA, are hitting better than Davidson at this point. That would be Wil Myers, Jonathan Singleton, and Oscar Taveras. All three of which, will be consensus Top 50 prospects when analysts start updating their midseason rankings. Davidson should be right up there as a Top 50 guy as well.

Future Expectations

Now the fun part. What does this all mean?

In order to try to create statistical comparisons for Davidson, I scoured Fangraphs's archives of prospects since 2006. I wanted to look at which other 21 year olds performed similarly well at the AA level, and what happened to them once they reached the majors. The parameters I set were 150 PA (to try to catch those prospects who excelled but then were promoted early, while still trying to keep a reasonably large sample size), and wRC+ of at least 140 (to give some cushion space for the performance measurement of prospects). Here are the results, with wRC+ numbers at the AA level in parenthesis:

2006: Matt Kemp (175)

2007: Evan Longoria (156)

2008: Daryl Jones (145), Kyle Blanks (144), Pablo Sandoval (140)

2009: Logan Morrison (143)

2010: Mike Moustakas (193), Wilin Rosario (143)

2011: Jose Altuve (147)

That's a pretty impressive list of major league regulars there. However, we can probably refine the statistical comparisons some more by looking at Baseball America's treatment of each of these prospects. This is particularly useful, because Baseball America primarily does scouting analytics on prospects, and they are generally considered to have much disdain for minor league statistics.

The only true bust on the list is Daryl Jones, and he was injured part of the time in 2009, though I don't know how much that had an impact on his future. Daryl Jones has also never made it onto a Baseball America Top 100 Prospect list.

Then there is Kyle Blanks, who has been somewhat disappointing. However, it's actually important to realize that Blanks has a career wRC+ of 108. Put that hitting ability at 3B, and even with slightly below average defense, I'd be reasonably satisfied with that outcome. Kyle Blanks was only on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospect list once, the year after his strong 2008 season.

I'm sure we're all familiar with the Pandoval by now. The Pandoval never actually placed on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospect list. However, that may be partially due to the fact that the Pandoval was jumped straight to the majors during his torrid AA stint. I think I speak for everyone when I say that if Davidson turns out to be like the Pandoval, we will all be very happy campers.

Longoria was well-regarded for multiple years by Baseball America (and was a highly touted draft prospect to boot) so he probably doesn't quite make sense as a potential future expectation.

Kemp on the other hand, provides a very interesting case. He was ranked 96th overall right before he went nuts in AA, then got called up to the majors, and was not given a re-ranking. He's also turned into an absolute monster the last season and a quarter, but even if Davidson only ends up as good as Kemp's first five seasons in the majors, we'd still all be extremely pleased.

Morrison's career wRC+ of 113 would also be a pleasant outcome for Davidson at 3B. One also has to wonder if LoMo's career numbers would be better if he wasn't so poorly handled by Florida management. As with Longoria (though to a slightly lesser extent) LoMo was well-regarded by Baseball America in multiple years as well.

As for Moustakas, Rosario, and Altuve, it is still probably too early to try to make definitive judgments. However, the early returns on Moustaks and Altuve are promising. I've never been a fan of Rosario, and outside of 300 PA in AA, he's never had the same success that Davidson has had. I would not be surprised if Rosario ended up a below-league average bat.

Red Flags

I'm still concerned about Davidson's defense, and will probably continue to be concerned until I see him play in the majors. He currently has 12 errors in 47 games. Fortunately, errors aren't a very good way of evaluating defensive tools. Errors are more a sign of consistency, and it was somewhat of a given expectation that Davidson would be inconsistent defensively at 3B this year, since it is his first full year at the position. If the scouting reports about his tools remain positive, then given further repetitions, we should see those errors start coming down.

I'm also still concerned about Davidson's strikeouts. For me, striking out in 25% of plate appearances is a huge red flag, as very few above average major league hitters struck out in more than 25% of plate appearances when they were on their last stint as a prospect in the minors. Fortunately, Davidson has managed to tone down his strikeouts somewhat. It's down to 21-22% right now, though that is somewhat misleading, as Davidson went on a tremendous tear at the beginning of the year when he almost never struck out. Recently, he's been striking out in about a quarter of his at-bats, and I would like to see him be able to continue adjusting through the course of the year and bring his strikeout rate down. Again though, Davidson is young, so he has time to improve his contact skillset. For what it's worth, scouting reports believe that Davidson's strikeouts will naturally go down, as he has a good approach at the plate.

Conclusion

When Davidson gets called up permanently (most likely sometime in 2013) he is likely going to struggle. Almost all young hitters struggle when they first get called up, and I doubt Davidson will be an exception. Even Moustakas, who was extremely well-regarded before his call-up (and definitely was better regarded than Davidson is right now) struggled initially, only to bounce back nicely this season.

However, as long as we are patient through those initial struggles, I feel confident we will be rewarded down the line. Davidson has a very strong likelihood at being a productive everyday player at the major league level. He should be able to put up a wRC+ in the 110-120 range for us over his cost-controlled years, while playing acceptable defense at 3B. Maybe something like Casey McGehee's 2010 season, which was good for 3 WAR.

And of course, there's a legitimate chance that he turns into the next Pablo Sandoval or Matt Kemp.

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