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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Can Rajai Davis Hit?

On April 23, 2008, the Giants waived Rajai Davis.  He had opened the season by going 1 for 18 with a walk.  At that time his future looked bleak.  The Giants opted to hang on to Dave Roberts and Eugenio Velez instead of him, and it was uncertain if he'd catch on with a major league team.  He was never a highly touted prospect, and at 27, unlikely to improve much in the future.  And, at first glance, a run-of-the-mill speed and defense guy.

He looked to most teams like a fourth or fifth outfielder at best and the A's claimed him off of waivers to fill exactly that role.  For the rest of 2008 he was used as a part-time outfielder, full time pinch runner and defensive replacement.  He appeared in 101 games for the A's, managing only 207 plate appearances.  He emerged last season, though, as a full time starter and hit .305/.360/.423.  He also stole 41 bases in 52 tries and played outstanding defense in centerfield.  Last season's output earned him the leadoff position on this year's squad and the A's rely on him to jumpstart the offense; Davis has scored 12 of the A's 62 runs this year.

Because he's such an important cog in the A's offense, it'd be really nice to get a handle on the answer to this question: How good is he with the bat?  Is he the practically perfect leadoff hitter from 2009 or the guy who couldn't beat out Emil Brown for regular playing time in 2008? 

Odds are its somewhere in between.  His numbers from last year look very fluky.  The .423 SLG was 15 points higher than his minor league slugging percentage and the .305 batting average matched his minor league output.  He also had a BABIP of .361, which is high, even for a speedy guy like Rajai.  But his 2008 numbers were also a fluke.  In 226 PAs his BABIP was only .285 despite hitting line drives at a higher rate than he had in 2007 and higher than his 2009 figure.  Davis has clearly defined strengths and weaknesses; he can't hit for power (he has 33 home runs in nine professional seasons), he can run very fast (he has 351 pro steals), and he can also hit for a pretty decent average.  He hit .305 in the minors which translates roughly to a .280 major league average. 

Its Davis' plate discipline that has been inconsistent and his offensive success relies heavily on his ability to take a walk and swing at good pitches.  Throughout the minors and with the Pirates, Davis was able to draw walks in 8-10% of his plate appearances.  In 2008, that number dropped to 3.5%.  That year he also swung at 36% of pitches out of the strike zone.  In 2007 that number was under 20% and last year it was 30%.  So far it looks like the 2008 version of Rajai Davis is playing.  He's walked in only 3% of his PAs and has swung at nearly 39% of pitches outside of the strike zone.  The normal early season, small sample size caveats apply, but this is not a good sign.

Davis has to be more patient at the plate.  Because he's so dangerous on the basepaths pitchers are going to give him pitches to hit so they don't walk him.  He's got to put those balls in play to be successful while accepting any free passes that come his way.  Rajai's glove and his legs will only carry him so far.  If he continues his hacktastic ways he may very well lose some playing time when Coco Crisp comes off the DL.  And if Gabe Gross, Travis Buck, Michael Taylor, or even Matt Carson makes enough of an impression, Davis may be relegated to the fourth or fifth outfielder role he seemed destined for in 2008.

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