Why The Mets Need to Stand Pat With Ike Davis

Ike Davis.

Just the mention of the name is enough to get casual Mets fans blood pressure to rise.  However, despite the seemingly permanent frustration, now is not the right time for the Mets get rid of him.

At different times, Ike Davis has been a promising prospect, a disappointing prospect, a promising prospect, a stunning success in his rookie campaign,  a 925 OPS monster before his injury in 2011, befelled by the exotic “Valley Fever” before saving his 2012 campaign with an incredible 888 OPS and 20 home run second half, and then a disaster in 2013.  As if that were not enough, even that 2013 disaster showed glimmers of hope, with a 990 OPS August and and a 1091 OPS in Triple-A Las Vegas.

The only thing that has been consistent about Ike Davis is his inconsistency; or at least, his inconsistency, his power, and the ugly hitch in his swing.  

Because of this, there has been a lot of talk about what to do with Ike this offseason: does he get a spot in the Mets’ lineup last year?  Does he go to the minors to work it out?  There have been rumors about other teams believing that they can “fix” Ike Davis – do the Mets attempt to trade him now?

[FN] Howard Johnson, former Mets coach, had this to say about Davis after he saw him take batting practice in Triple-A last season:  “‘My jaw dropped when I saw him swing the bat,’ HoJo said. ‘I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t look anything like the guy I remembered. I saw about eight things right away.'”

Here at the Read Zone, despite the impending arbitration decision, we believe that a smart decision can’t be made about Ike Davis without taking a look at three important factors: 1) the current state of the team, 2) alternatives to Davis at first base, and 3) Davis himself.

First: Right now, the Mets are not in a position to win anything.  Yes, thankfully, the organization as a whole is finally in a position where we can be optimistic.  With Wheeler, Syndergaard, Harvey, Gee, Mejia and others, the Mets have the pitching depth necessary to compete.  With Wright’s re-emergence, they have a few more years of a bona fide star.  And with Lagares, Montero, Parnell, Satin, Duda, Murphy and D’Arnaud, and players in the minor league pipeline, there are a number of other useful pieces who are ready to contribute positively to a major league team – the kind of players that a winning organization needs.  However, the talent is not there to make a run in 2014 without Harvey.

Second: the Mets have other adequate options at first base.  First and foremost among these is Lucas Duda, who has been much maligned, even on this very site.  Back in May, the Read Zone was ahead of the curve when we stated that “Duda’s days in the outfield should be numbered,” pointing out his dreadful defense, deteriorating batting eye, and proclivity for solo home runs.

However, unlike when he was cast as an outfielder, Lucas Duda is a perfectly acceptable first baseman.  Although he’s not an enormous asset with the glove at first, Duda is a positive defender there.  He passes the defensive eye test, and he graded out at +3.1 UZR/150 for his play there this year (an advanced defensive stat indicating that he was better then league average).  Offensively, Duda’s abilities speak for themselves:  although he batted only .223 last year, he posted a 767 OPS, good for a 118 OPS+, a figure which was significantly above league average.  Duda is not a long-term solution for a winning team at first base, but he’s a positive contributor there.

[FN] It is worth mentioning here that Duda has graded out better defensively than Ike has at first base over the last year by defensive metrics.  Although Ike used to appear to be a sterling defender, even the eye-test indicates that he’s worsened there lately.  Therefore, contrary to the narrative, I would consider their defensive play at least a tie, rather than a point for Ike as is it usually considered. 

Third: Even at his best, Ike Davis never hit lefties, and we don’t know who he is.  In addition to the uncertainty we have as to how good he will be in general, even when things were going well for Davis, he was not hitting lefties.   In Ike’s hot beginning of 2011, he posted a 493 OPS against lefties.  Small sample size you say?  His career OPS against lefties is 602, compared to 827 against righties.  This will always be a problem with Ike, even when he’s going well.

Being bad against same-handed pitching is not a deal-breaker (even AL home run leader Chris Davis posted a paltry 763 OPS against lefties this year in his almost-MVP campaign, as compared to 1142 against righties) but being very bad is.   For a slight glimmer of hope, Ike posted a 929 OPS against lefties in his stint in Triple-A earlier this year.  We don’t know what we’re going to get from him overall, but we know that even when successful, he’s going to struggle against same-handed pitching.

So where does this all leave us with Ike?

Many have suggested that now is the time to trade him: but we disagree.  Ike’s value has never been lower than it is today.  Why would we take a player capable of hitting 30+ home runs in a season and give him away when his value is lowest?  Such a move might be defensible if the Mets were on the fringes of contention and where trading a guy like Ike could give them that final piece they need, but that is clearly not the case today.

Others have suggested that Ike has shown “potential” and that he should be given the first base job as his to lose.  But why hand him the opportunity he has squandered the last two years, both to the detriment of his team and his own confidence?  Even worse, putting Davis back at first would either require Duda to be shifted back into the outfield or, as some have suggested, traded himself.  Many outlets have said outright that the Mets will need to choose one or the other.  The Mets should be in no rush to make this kind of decision.

When the Mets sent Ike to Triple-A last year, we were elated.  He began to hit in Las Vegas, posting a line of .293/.424/.667.  He was playing every day, playing against lefties.  He was hitting for power.  He was taking time out of the spotlight to work out whatever issues he might have had, doing so out of the glare of the New York media.  We were happy, for once, with the Mets’ decision-making.

But calling him back to the major leagues was perplexing, befuddling, and disappointing.   We can’t blame his season-ending oblique injury on the Mets, but they were under no pressure or obligation to call him back to the majors to displace Lucas Duda after only three weeks in Triple-A.

We still have no idea who this guy is, or what he could potentially be.  With the Mets not in a rush to do anything, the right move can only be to stand pat and start Ike in Triple-A or battling for a job in the spring.

[FN]This all goes out the window if, for instance, a team who saw his potential wanted to trade and pay for it at full value, but the odds of that happening are slim.  In the meantime, I think that Ike should be given every opportunity to show the Mets that he is, indeed, the man.  But he should not be doing that in the majors.

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).

Ike’s swing is long, and has a big hitch, and is susceptible to getting out of whack.  He strikes me as the kind of player who will do exactly this: get into a slump, struggle, and become hopelessly lost.  Ike, more than any other Met I can think of, needs to establish a baseline — he needs to convince himself that he’s a major leaguer again.

Ike Davis is a career .242/.334/.434 hitter over 1700+ plate appearances.  This comes out to a line of .271/.357/.460 in his first 750 plate appearances (123 OPS+), and 219/.315/.414 since then (103 OPS+).  Fangraphs projects him this year to bat around his career averages, but obviously, you can’t put too much weight into that projection.

John Delcos says that Sandy Alderson prefers Duda to Ike.  I would prefer that the team not choose.   Sending Ike to Triple-A while letting Duda establish his value at first base will give both men the opportunities to raise their value.  The Mets are, or should be, in no rush to trade Ike or to have him start the year in the majors.  If Ike crushes it in Triple-A, fantastic, we’ve got our first baseman of the future.  If he fails in Triple-A, then we know he wasn’t the guy for us in the first place and we would be fortunate to have given that time to Duda.  Plus, a team that thinks they can “fix” Ike, if there is such a team, will still think so after a bad two months in Las Vegas.

The Mets can’t afford to trade Ike and watch him become a star elsewhere.  The Mets also can’t afford to trade Duda, a useful major leaguer, so that they can roll the dice with the Ike Davis lottery ticket.  For now, I’d counsel patience.

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Brian Mangan is tired of the Mets’ impatience.  Like any fan, he’d like to win now: but he’d much rather win now and later than make a meaningless run at .500

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