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The Five “Acts” of Ike Davis’s Career, and Why Trading Him Was a Mistake for the Mets

In Sports on April 22, 2014 at 5:50 pm

By: Brian Mangan

In an ideal world, I would have written this on Friday when the news came down and have plenty of time to organize my thoughts on it.  In an ideal world, Ike Davis would still be a Met.  This is not an ideal world.  As it stands, I think the Mets made the wrong choice and I hope and believe that Ike will have a long and productive career in Pittsburgh.

I often make fun of writers and other analysts for making a big deal over a player’s “streakiness” when in fact a baseball season is nothing more than several dozen such little “streaks” which amount to nothing more than statistical noise.  For example, a few years back, the writers at Metsblog were convinced that David Wright was an unusually streaky hitter.   We explained that looking at 20, 30, or even 50 plate appearance segments was silly, by pointing at the player who, at that time, was the best in the world:

For the first nine games, Pujols hit .400/.486/.886. Then for the next eight games, he hit .147/.275/.294. But wait! In the next seven games, he hit .520/.600/.800! But now he looks lost, hitting .222/.364/.296 in his last seven games.

That is baseball. Pujols is “The Machine” but he goes through swings like anyone else. It’s luck, it’s health, it’s rhythm, it’s weather, it’s opposing pitching, it’s being home or away.

The reason I bring this up now is because – like all rules – they are meant to be broken.  And boy, has Ike Davis broken the rules.  In Ike’s few years with the Mets (which go back to 2010, longer ago than one might realize) he has been the most streaky, most bi-polar, hitter that I have ever seen.  I have been a Mets fan for many years, and have defended many players against silly allegations like streaky, and choker, and other nonsense — but I don’t think we’ll see another player with a career like Ike’s for 20 years.

The bottom line is this: Ike has spent hundreds of plate appearances – or sometimes years – looking like entirely different players.  And not just a good player versus a replacement player, but rather, vascillating between a potential future star and a player who shouldn’t be in major league baseball at all.  There are five discrete sections of the Ike Davis drama (let’s call them Acts I-V) which I will look at below.  Because these Acts are so distinct, and so different, I don’t think we know exactly who Ike Davis is yet.  It is overly simplistic to think Ike Davis can’t hack it in New York because he has an ugly baseball card for 2012 and 2013; in my opinion, Ike Davis has spent many more months looking like an above average regular (Acts I, III, V) than he has in his two below-average tailspins (Acts II and IV).  For that reason, I think the Mets made a mistake cutting him loose.

Take a look at these huge swaths of time in which Ike was, simply put, completely different players (we will skip his 652 OPS at Low-A Brooklyn in 215 at bats)

ACT I: 2009, 2010, and April 2011 – A Star in the Making

In 2009, Ike roared back with an 863 OPS at High-A St. Lucie, then doubled down with a 951 OPS at Double-A Binghamton.  After an offseason of speculation over whether he would open the season with the Mets (and a spring training where he scalded the ball for a line of .480/.538/.960(!!!!)) he crushed the ball in Triple-A Buffalo to the rune of a 1136 OPS and forced a callup.

The momentum continued for Ike throughout 2010, as he posted a .264/.351/.440 line as a 23 year-old first baseman in the major leagues, hitting 19 home runs, striking out an acceptable amount, and playing 7th in the rookie of the year voting.

The next season started out even better, as he posted a .302/.383/.543 line in his first 36 games for the Mets.  For literally 25 consecutive months, Ike Davis showed that he was a legitimate major league prospect and player.  It wasn’t a hot month, or a lucky cup of coffee.  He tore the cover off the ball off at every level … and played plus defense.

ACT II: May 10, 2011 to July 24, 2012 – Ankle Injury, Valley Fever, and Doubt

Ike missed the rest of 2011.  Entering 2012, he was supposed to be healthy … except he contracted, of all things, a disease known as Valley Fever.  Whether or not that contributed to his slow start, we cannot be sure (spoiler alert: it did) but he managed only to hit .202/.276/.404.  He struck out 90 times in only 312 at bats.  He looked lost.  He popped 15 home runs, but for the most part his bat speed and plate discipline had eroded.  The Ike Davis we thought we knew had vanished.

ACT III: July 25, 2012 to April 1, 2013 – A New Hope

Ike finished the 2012 season incredibly strong, batting .256/.354/.551 from July 25th onward and bashing 17 home runs in 240 plate appearances.  Was Ike Davis back?  Had he recovered from valley fever and almost a whole year away from baseball?  I, for one, believed that he had.  He followed up that resurgence with a strong spring, batting .327/.431/.455 in 55 spring training at bats in 2013.

ACT IV: April 1, 2013 to June 9, 2013 – The Inexplicable One

This is the one that I don’t understand.  Despite being handed the first base job on a silver platter, and with no injuries to speak of, Ike was astoundingly bad for the first half of 2013.  He batted .161/.242/.258 and struck out in over a third of his at-bats.  His confidence was gone, and this time, there was no excuse as to why.

ACT V: June 10, 2013 to April 16, 2014- Ike’s Resurgence

In what can only be called a merciful move, the Mets sent Ike to the minors in June to see if he could work on his swing and salvage any chance at a major league career.  And wouldn’t you know it?  Ike batted .293/.424/.667 in Triple-A Las Vegas, away from the bright lights and pressures of New York City, over 21 wonderful games.  A short sample, to be sure, but it could have been a lovely way for Ike to re-establish his confidence over the long haul.

The Mets saw differently, calling Ike back to the Show on July 5th.  And for once, the Mets were right and I was wrong, as Ike continued to hit against major league competition, batting .267/.429/.443 over his last 170 plate appearances.  He still struck out, and didn’t hit for too much power, but this 872 OPS version of Ike looked like a major leaguer.

Over the offseason, we advocated for the Mets to stand pat with Ike Davis.  We said that the Mets were in no rush to make a decision, that the replacement options at first were average at best, and we still couldn’t be sure what he could be.  Our conclusion:

Starting Ike in Triple-A will also give Duda more time to play at first and potentially increase Duda’s value for a trade to an American League team or another team needing a first baseman or left handed bat off the bench.  Duda, as discussed above, is definitely a major leaguer, but the narrative has not yet caught up to his performance (thanks to his dreadful outfield play obscuring the good).

Instead, the Mets took the most perplexing, befuddling, and ultimately embarrassing path, heading north from spring training with both Davis and Duda sharing the load as the lefties in a first base platoon.  Why?  We will never know.  What we do know is that Ike posted an 830 OPS in the spring (albeit in only 29 at bats) but then got only three starts in the team’s first ten games.  Ike posted a 1053 OPS in those games, but those were not apparently enough to convince the team that he should be a starter.  On April 16, 2014, Ike was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Conclusion

It doesn’t matter that Ike has done well in his first few games as a Pirate (although 5/13 with a grand slam looks nice). The problem is that the Mets took an incredibly sub-optimal path toward their decision to trade Ike and stick, instead, with Lucas Duda.

FN: We’ve said all along that Duda would make for a fine first baseman.  In fact, we pointed out in the offseason that not only has Duda graded out positively at first base according to defensive metrics — but he actually graded out better than Ike Davis did defensively in 2013.  Ike posted negative UZR/150’s in 2012 and 2013, but so far this year has been positive by that metric (+1.1 UZR in only 85 innings).  Duda posted a positive UZR in 2013, and has been positive again this year (+0.3 UZR in 97 innings). 

By shoehorning two players into the long side of a single platoon, the Mets failed to raise either player’s values.  They also failed to be able to see which Ike Davis is the real Ike Davis.  They merely created a distraction in the major league clubhouse, before cutting bait with one of the most well-liked players on the team.

Let’s recap Acts 1 through V:

Act I, 2010 and 2011: .271/.357/.460 over 750 plate appearances, 26 HR, 123 OPS+
Act II, early 2012: .202/.276/.404 in 344 plate appearances
Act III, late 2012: .256/.354/.551 in 240 plate appearances
Act IV, early 2013: .161/.242/.258 in 207 plate appearances
Act V, late 2013: .267/.429/.443 in 170 plate appearances

When I look at the various ups and downs in Ike’s career, I don’t see a player who cratered without explanation from a potential wunderkind in 2009-2011 to a dud thereafter.  I see a player who has been overall working his way toward a successful major league career, but who had two incredibly long and deep troughs.  You don’t luck your way into being that good, and you don’t luck your way into being that bad.  Other things are at play.

If Davis has not been injured in 2011, and instead had put together seasons which more closely resembled his overall line from 2010-2012 (.252/.336/.461, 28 HR per 162 at bats with plus defense) then his struggles in 2013 could be brushed off as an aberration.  But he was injured, and then he was sick.  And then he was inexplicably bad in 2013 — but sometimes that just happens.

Yes, the valleys of April – June 2012 and April – June 2013 were low.  But those are the exceptions, not the rule, in Ike Davis’s minor and major league career.  By trading Davis, the Mets have said that they trust those six months more than they trust the other 20 months of his career, in which Ike Davis looked like a good or potentially great major league player:  2009 (6 months), 2010 (6 months), July 2012-Spring 2013 (4 months), June 2013-April 10, 2014 (4 months).

This is not about cherry picking statistics.  This is about looking at the bulk of his resume, rather than the worst parts of it.  Ike’s baseball card doesn’t look good, but he’s got 20 months of baseball at Double-A or higher (mostly in MLB) that tells me he’s a major leaguer.  Even including the bad, he’s got a 112 career OPS over 1755 plate appearances.

I apologize that this is somewhat esoteric and that I relied more than I planned to on statistics, but I find the Ike Davis story to be fascinating.  Prior to three bad months leading off 2012, there was no doubt that Ike was “the man,” and the only question was whether he would be a starter or a star.  Even if you were to count from July 2012 through September 2013, following his recovery from his baseball hiatus and valley fever, Ike has been more good (6 months) than bad (3 months).

Again, I don’t expect Ike to win an MVP or crush the Mets for the next decade — but I fully expect that he is capable of batting a little worse than, but near to, his current batting line the rest of this year with plus defense.  If Ike goes .260/.350/.465 the rest of the way, that would make him a 4+ WAR player, and a valuable piece of a winning ballclub.

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Brian Mangan grew up near Shea and has been a lifelong, die-hard Mets fan.  He is an attorney living in New  York City and is a co-founder of the Read Zone.

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