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Matt Davidson - Diamondbacks Third Baseman of the Future

We've talked plenty about Matt Davidson over the past year, and he always gets mentioned as our third baseman of the future. But I thought it essential to take a closer look at why he is considered the third baseman of the future, and whether in fact he deserves that recognition. And if he does deserve that then when might he arrive and what can we expect of him when he does.

Picture courtesy of Arizona Diamondbacks/MLB

In general as I researched the comps and such for this article, it didn't take me too long to decide that Davidson should be arriving sooner than later. I've been a fan of Davidson for a while now, though I have to confess that I was subconsiously softening on him as he seemed to cool off for a stretch in the middle of his 2012 AA season. But in hindsight I think it's possible that because I was looking at (and reviewing) his results every single day, it may have unfairly jaded me on his overall numbers.

So I took the time to run the comps on Davidson for his level and age, as well as take a closer look at his progression from 2011 to 2012. The results are pretty darned enlightening. From a hitting perspective Davidson is as good or better than most 3B prospects over the past six years. What my analysis doesn't take into account is his fielding. The stats for minor league fielding just aren't very robust and you're really forced to rely on what a handful of scouts say about it. So the overall analysis makes the primary assumption that his fielding will be adequate and strictly looks at things from an offensive viewpoint.

From 2011 to 2012
I was really surprised when I took a hard look at how Davidson performed in the Southern League this year versus the California League last year. It's always been said that the jump from High A to AA is the most difficult jump for a player, especially considering that the California League is an extreme hitter's league and the Southern League is an extreme pitcher's league, relatively speaking. Here are some of the key numbers year over year, and do keep in mind Davidson played all of his 2012 season at the tender age of 21.

Year Team League Level G PA BA OBP SLG OPS HR ISO BABIP K% BB% wRC+
2011 Visali Cal A+ 135 606 .277 .348 .465 .813 20 .188 .340 24.3% 8.6% 107
2012 Mobile Sou AA 133 567 .264 .369 .474 .843 23 .208 .307 21.7% 11.8% 134

As you can see, there are a lot of good things going on in his 2012 line versus the 2011 line. K rate is down, walk rate is up. Home runs are up. BABIP is down. The ISO is up. The OPS is up. The wRC+ is up. One stat not in this chart is the Line Drive rate, which is up from 9.6% in 2011 to 16.3% in 2012. And at the risk of repeating myself, these numbers have all been done at the age of 21. There are not a lot of 21 YO kids in AA much less ones that post these kinds of numbers. We'll see when we look at some of the comps that you just don't see this very often at this age.

AA Level Comps
With Davidson's AA season now in the books it's time to go and see what some other prospects have done at that level and that age. To create the list I chose the following parameters:
All AA Leagues
22 YO or younger
300 Plate appearances
ISO .150 or better
2006 or more recent (farthest back I can go)

Here's what the list looks like and their relative stats.

Alex Gordon 22 130 486 39 1 29 101 72 113 22 0.325 1.016 0.263 123 0.444 167
Brandon Laird 22 107 409 22 2 23 90 38 84 2 0.291 0.878 0.232 75 0.385 136
Josh Bell 22 127 448 35 2 20 76 61 98 3 0.297 0.896 0.221 88 0.401 148
Evan Longoria 21 105 381 21 0 21 76 51 81 4 0.307 0.93 0.22 82 0.414 155
Juan Francisco 22 109 437 26 2 22 74 20 91 6 0.281 0.818 0.22 66 0.364 123
Will Middlebrooks 22 96 371 25 1 18 80 21 95 7 0.302 0.865 0.218 65 0.382 136
Mat Gamel 22 127 508 35 7 19 96 55 111 6 0.329 0.933 0.209 104 0.413 148
Matt Davidson 21 135 486 28 2 23 76 69 126 3 0.261 0.836 0.208 87 0.382 134
Scott Moore 22 132 463 28 0 22 75 55 126 12 0.276 0.839 0.203 80 0.378 141
Alex Liddi 21 134 502 37 8 15 92 50 145 5 0.281 0.829 0.195 85 0.373 125
Ian Stewart 21 120 462 41 7 10 71 50 103 3 0.268 0.803 0.184 74 0.356 110
Chad Spann 22 99 360 28 3 10 50 29 85 3 0.294 0.833 0.178 62 0.375 137
Neil Walker 21 116 426 30 3 13 66 53 73 9 0.291 0.833 0.176 75 0.371 125
Lonnie Chisenhall 21 117 460 22 3 17 84 46 77 3 0.278 0.801 0.172 76 0.359 119
Ryan Wheeler 22 131 480 30 2 16 89 45 102 3 0.292 0.818 0.171 77 0.364 118
David Vidal 22 97 335 21 1 11 39 28 90 0 0.227 0.685 0.167 38 0.316 89
Josh Vitters 21 129 449 28 2 14 81 22 54 4 0.283 0.77 0.165 62 0.342 104
Matt Dominguez 20 138 504 34 2 14 81 56 96 0 0.252 0.744 0.159 71 0.339 103
David Winfree 21 123 460 27 5 12 51 26 106 0 0.267 0.734 0.159 58 0.328 97
Junior Lake 22 103 405 26 3 10 50 35 105 21 0.279 0.773 0.153 59 0.356 117

There's a number of things that jump out at me from the list. The first is that there has been only one regular third baseman since 2006 who posted a better ISO season than Davidson at the age of 21 or younger, and that was Evan Longoria. Of course we'd all love it if Davidson were the next Longoria, but his numbers don't quite measure up to his, though they're not all that far off either.

Also interesting is that the bulk of these guys were 22 when they posted these kinds of numbers. If Davidson were allowed to repeat at this level next year I'm pretty sure he would post something that would only be rivaled by Alex Gordon and Evan Longoria, and maybe he could post numbers that rival those. However, I think Davidson is headed to AAA next year so I don't think we'll get a chance to see that play out.

So which comps do I like the best from this group? Well, as much as I'd like to, I can't put him in the same class as Gordon or Longoria. He's in the group just behind those two. The name that jumps out at me and has some very similar numbers is Will Middlebrooks, who had a very nice rookie season for the Red Sox last year. And again, Middlebrooks put up that AA season at the age of 22, not 21. I also think Davidson is better than most (if not all) of the other guys on this list, many of whom I still like as prospects or they're already in the big leagues. I wouldn't trade Davidson for Chisenhall as an example. Neil Walker has turned into a solid infielder for the Pirates but Davidson's numbers are better than his too. Overall, I have to rank Davidson the 3rd best player on this list.

The Future
If not for the questions about his defense, it's possible some organizations would be giving Davidson a chance to make the ML roster this coming season. While he'll be given at bats in ST with the big boys, it doesn't really matter what he does as it appears pretty certain the Dbacks will start the season with Johnson and Chavez manning the position. Davidson will most likely be off to AAA Reno where I expect him to be able to post some fairly gaudy numbers. Just look at what Ryan Wheeler did in AAA coming off a good AA season that didn't even measure up to Davidson's.

So if Davidson is not Alex Gordon and he's not Evan Longoria, who is he? That's a good question. The important point is he doesn't need to be either of those guys to be a very good and very important piece of the Diamondbacks' future. I honestly don't see how he won't make it. He's putting up semi-elite numbers at very young ages. That almost always suggests a productive Major League player down the road. Considering the Dbacks seemed willing to tolerate bad defense from someone like Josh Bell if he would hit enough, I'm not that worried that Davidson won't make it because of his defense. The scouting reports I've read say enough to make me think with solid coaching and continued work at the position, that's not going to be a limitation for him. He won't be Brooks Robinson but he should be better than someone like Chris Johnson.

It's clear the team is planning on one more complete year of seasoning for Davidson with a projected arrival date of 2014. There are circumstances that could alter that plan. Johnson could crater in 2013 while Davidson tears it up in Reno and the team decides to swap them out with Davidson becoming a part of the 3B platoon with Chavez. In any case, it's going to be difficult to keep Davidson out of the lineup in 2014. He should make for a very nice infield bookend with Goldschmidt for some years to come.

It's difficult to project what kinds of numbers Davidson will put up in the big leagues. If Will Middlebrooks' results are any indication then maybe we'll be pleasantly surprised with what he can do. It doesn't seem like Davidson will ever be a high BA guy as he's never hit .300 in the minors. But BA is overrated anyways. A .382 wOBA in the Southern league isn't elite level, but it's pretty darned good. Davidson does have a pretty good eye and while he strikes out a tad more than the guys on this list, he also hits more home runs than they do. For that reason, once he settles in at the ML level I see him becoming a very productive and steady power source in the Dbacks lineup. I could envision a 3-year stat line something like this.

2014 120 450 .235 .320 .400 .720 15
2015 130 550 .255 .335 .425 .760 20
2016 140 650 .265 .350 .450 .800 24

I don't think these are wild expectations. And he could certainly out-perform these. In fact, it's probably fair to say these numbers will be closer to his floor than his ceiling.

So while I like the signing of Chavez and I'm not all that worried about giving 400 at bats to Chris Johnson in 2013, they are just holding down the fort until Davidson makes his arrival in 2014. It would certainly be a disappointment if that didn't happen. There's nothing in Davidson's past to suggest he won't make it. And there's plenty of evidence to suggest he could make it big. I'm trying to reign in my optimism about him because to me, it smells like he's another Goldschmidt only younger. I don't believe we've seen Davidson's best yet. I'm thinking it won't be long before we get used to seeing an order that lines up Goldie, Miggy and Matty back-to-back-to-back in the middle of the Dbacks lineup for a number of years to come.