Soon after the season ended we heard Kevin Towers talk about what the Dbacks need to add to their lineup for next season and he made it clear that at the top of his list was a power-hitting corner outfielder or third baseman. if I was Matt Davidson I'm not sure how excited I would have been to hear those comments because what they say to me is that KT isn't seriously considering Davidson an option to fill that role. What else could the comment mean?
Isn't Davidson a power-hitting cornerman? Has the team seen enough of him to be convinced he can't fill that role? What does Davidson's development to date say about his chances to be the additional power-hitting bat he's looking for in the lineup? Is his defense holding him back? Or is he just a major trade chip that will be used to acquire something more to his liking?
I've spent a lot of time lately looking at Davidson's history, trying to compare his results to date with other third basemen, how they've developed and what they've become. And I find myself asking the exact same question. Has Matt Davidson done enough and shown enough promise that he deserves a chance to show what he can do on a full-time basis, or at least a semi-full-time basis? Let's look at some of the pluses and minuses and see if we can't come up with an answer ourselves. For disclosure purposes, I've gone on record more than once that I didn't think Davidson had what it took to earn that chance and have even said there are other organizational third basemen who I rate above him. I'm going to set those thoughts aside for the moment and try and be objective over the course of this analysis.
1. Up through his AA season Davidson has performed significantly above average for his age relative to the level. He played as an 18-year-old in the advanced rookie league straight out of high school, which is no small feat, though he didn't exactly tear it up with a .612 OPS. He still made the jump to A ball where he broke out in a big way and earned a mid-season promotion to High A Visalia as a 19-year-old, hitting 18 home runs and driving in 90 runs with an .829 combined OPS. He spent the entire next season in Visalia also and had a solid year with 20 home runs, 106 RBI and an .814 OPS in 135 games. That's a very good season but not a great season for the California League. It was still enough to earn him a promotion to AA Mobile where he put together an outstanding season with 23 homers, 76 RBI and an .836 OPS as a 20-year-old in the pitcher-friendly Southern League. And he made the transition to being a full-time third baseman. There's not a lot of players over the past 20 years or so who have put together a collection of productive seasons like that through their 21st birthday.
2. Davidson has successfully made a full and near complete transition to third base. In his early years in the minors he played plenty of third base but he also played a lot of first base and designated hitter. It became clear that if he was going to go all the way he was going to need to become a competent fielder at one position and for the most part he has done that. He's not an above average defender or even an average defender yet, and he still may even post negative WAR numbers for defense, but he's developed into a passable defender from what I've seen and what the numbers show.
3. His 30-game trial at the end of last season was mostly a success. He started out slow but finished strong posting an OPS+ of 110, above league average with just 1 error in 20 games at third base. He hit 3 homers, drove in 12 runs and half of his 19 hits went for extra bases. He seemed to take well to top-flight coaching making a few swing tweaks that showed immediate results. Multiply those results by 5 and you get a slightly above average third baseman, which in my opinion would be perfectly acceptable for a 23-year-old rookie with his best years in front of him.
4. He showed up in some big-stage spots mid-season by hitting a home run in the Futures Game while earning game MVP honors as well as winning the AAA Home Run Derby. It's always good to see a player perform under the brightest lights to know he doesn't shrink from those opportunities.
1. His AAA season this year was not the kind of step forward some were expecting in going from a pitcher's league in Mobile to the best hitting league in all of baseball in the PCL. This is a serious red flag that he didn't go from an .836 OPS in AA to a +.900 line in the hitter-friendly PCL, something nearly every good prospect does when given the chance on his way to the majors. Jim has highlighted in great detail what PCL numbers typically translate to in the majors and a line of .280/.350/.481 in Reno would normally produce a pretty ugly major league line. I can't really find any legitimate excuses for this other than maybe he was over-focused on his defense or he had some nagging minor injuries that didn't come to light. But whatever the excuse was, it's a negative in the prospect evaluation book.
2. His strike out rates are still concern, 25% in 2009. 24% in 2010. 24% in 2011. 22% in 2012. 27% last year in AAA and 27% in his short stint in the majors. Those aren't horrible rates but they're not very good either. Most prospects that turn into something good in the majors don't have strikeout rates like that. If he's going to hit 20+ home runs then maybe those rates will be acceptable. So while I'm not saying a 25% K rate disqualifies you from making it in the show, it's another red flag that generates doubt. On the plus side he does draw his fair share of walks at least. Nothing that suggests he has superior plate discipline but he's not just a total free-swinger either. His traditional weakness has been an inability to identify and lay off the outside breaking pitch or at least adjust to it and hit some of those balls the other way as Goldschmidt has learned to do. That doesn't mean he can't do it but the breaking pitches he faces are only going to get better.
3. His defense is still something of an issue. He's not going to be a plus defender under any circumstances and the less he fields the more he'll need to hit to stay in the lineup. Can he hit enough to overcome sub-standard defense? Therein lies the question, especially on a club that seems to want to emphasize plus defense to earn your way into the lineup on a regular basis. But it appears he has been working on it diligently and with a full winter to work on it further with some superior coaching at his disposal he may take another step forward in that regard this year.
Who Does He Compare To?
I ran a list of players off of Davidson's AA season which is the one that jumps off the page for me. It was a very impressive season for a 21-year-old, and since 2006 only one player has posted a wRC+ better than Davidson's 134 at the age of 21 or younger, and that was Evan Longoria. Six players bested that mark at the age of 22 since 2006 with 4 of those being one and done types who spent part of their seasons in High A, and the other two are Alex Gordon and Will Middlebrooks.
Middlebrooks really stands out as a possible comparison for Davidson. His AA season at a year older was almost identical to Davidson's. They each hit the same number of home runs in about the same number of at bats, and posted almost identical OPS figures of .834 and .835 respectively. Davidson's previous seasons were superior to Middlebrooks' but Middlebrooks took a major step forward in AAA by posting a 1.057 OPS in 100 at bats before getting called up to Boston where he played very well. Middlebrooks had a higher BA in that AA season (.285 to .261) but Davidson had a higher OBP (.367 to .328).
Middlebrooks performance this year was more uneven as he spent some more time in AAA and stumbled to a sub-.700 OPS even though he hit 17 home runs in 94 games with the Sox. Middlebrooks is also a below average defender at third so in many respects they are quite similar. If Davidson could do what Middlebrooks has done I'd probably be okay with that. This comparison doesn't project him to be a mainstay at third base that will produce consistently above average numbers. But it would suggest he can be a contributing player that can be counted on to produce some power, some run production and serve as decent insurance against injuries at either first or third.
Another player I might compare him to is Chris Johnson. Johnson was a couple of years older than Davidson at similar levels and he didn't put up the same kind of numbers Davidson did on the way up either. In his climb through the minors he generally hit for a little more average and a little less power than Davidson. His AA season at the age of 23 was .299/.336/.455 compared to Davidson's .261/.367/.469. But as with Middlebrooks Johnson took that big step forward numbers-wise when he got to AAA and that earned him his promotion to the majors.
Johnson also experienced uneven production once he got to the big leagues. He hit for an .818 OPS his first year, then .670 in his second. He followed that with a .777 OPS splitting time between Houston and Arizona in 2012, and then broke out somewhat this year with an .816 OPS, good for a 2.0 bWAR. He's another below average defender at third base that loses value in that area. In general, Johnson hits for a higher average and strikes out less than Davidson, but doesn't have his raw power. They're probably similar defensively though from what I've seen I give Davidson a slight edge there, though he is still below average.
In Davidson's development, his failure to really step it up in his AAA season is what keeps me from stating emphatically that he can be a superior player to either Middlebrooks or Johnson. His minor league development up to that point suggested he was going to be better than both of them, and that still may be the case. His short stint of 75 at bats at the end of 2013 when he put up a respectable .768 OPS is a good sign. I could see Davidson having his share of struggles next year not unlike Johnson and Middlebrooks did in their second seasons when pitchers adjusted to them and pounded on their weaknesses. Johnson has shown that he was able to make the adjustments and he's turned himself into a solid league-average or better player. We won't know about whether Middlebrooks can take that step up from his struggles this year, but it's not like he stunk up the joint. He did hit 17 home runs and drove in 49 in just 94 games. He was a contributor for sure.
As I've stated in the past and again several more times in this article. Davidson's failure to put up a really good AAA season makes me a little nervous about his long-term prospects. But his performance wasn't so bad that it should discount everything he did up to that point which generally has to be rated as well above average. He was only 22years old playing a full season of AAA with the pressure of the majors staring him square in the face.
The question I might ask myself is...would I trade Matt Davidson for either Will Middlebrooks or Chris Johnson, all things considered? It's a good question and one not easily answered. I'm not sure I would turn down an offer of Middlebrooks for Davidson straight up. In 169 major league games Middlebrooks has hit 32 home runs and driven in 102 runs. Would I take that from Davidson over the next two years? Yeah, I probably would. Johnson will be 29 next year so considering the age difference I don't think I would make that deal.
In any case, I think there's a pretty strong argument that Davidson is certainly in the class of those two guys. And considering his age he still has significant upside that shouldn't be just thrown aside. There have been players with less developmental accomplishments than Davidson that have gone on to be very productive players. While I still can't get last year's AAA numbers out of my head, I think Davidson deserves his shot to see what he can do with at least some semi-regular playing time for the Diamondbacks.
Power-hitting third basemen don't grow on trees and putting a guy into the 6 or 7 hole in the lineup that can hit 15-20 homers, drive in 75 and manage an OBP around .320-.330 is a valuable asset. I have to concede there is the risk that Davidson would only hit .220 with 8 homers and a 30% K-rate and find himself in danger of being sent back to AAA. But they said some of the same things about Goldschmidt when he hit a bump in the road and I remember the grumblings that Goldy should be ticketed down for more seasoning. Thankfully management was patient and his hard work paid off in spades. I've read scouting reports that say Davidson is a similarly hard worker and there's simply no reason a 22-year old shouldn't be capable of more significant development and progression. I say give him a shot and let's see what he can do.