Khris Davis Now Needs to Prove He’s the Man in Left Field
Khris Davis was never a very heralded prospect, but that has never bothered the Brewers’ current starting left fielder. Davis quietly made his way up the minor league ladder after being chosen in the 7th round of the 2009 MLB Draft, posting an excellent .285/.389/.501 slash with 69 home runs in 421 minor league games before Ryan Braun‘s Biogenesis suspension gave him the everyday chance at the MLB level that he had worked so hard to earn. After a breakout 2013 campaign that saw Khris post a .949 OPS and slug 11 home runs in just 153 plate appearances, the Brewers handed Davis the starting left field job heading into the 2014 season.
As an everyday player, however, Davis has not been able to live up to that spectacular rookie campaign. To his credit, he has been a serviceable regular: he’s hit 31 home runs and posted an OPS+ of 107 and 2.1 fWAR over the last two seasons. But Davis does have his limitations: a poor arm means he’s stuck in left field, and he has shown a penchant for striking out at the plate. Due to these flaws, Davis might be the most polarizing player among the teams’ fanbase. He is regularly lambasted for his weak throwing arm and low batting averages, but he causes jaws to drop with his raw power and uses his decent speed and good route running to provide adequate overall defense in left.
Davis started off well this season, posting a .341 wOBA, 113 wRC+, and slugging five home runs through the season’s first two months. Unfortunately, Khrush suffered a torn meniscus and missed the month of June completely. When he returned to the active roster, Davis suddenly found himself with an uncertain path to playing time. With the emergence of Gerardo Parra in his absence, Davis was relegated to pinch hitter/platoon duties and he appeared at the plate only 48 time during July, struggling to a .186/.271/.349 performance and a wRC+ of 69. When Parra was traded prior to the non waiver trade deadline, it opened up an everyday role in the outfield back up for Davis, but his future is now even more muddied than ever.
In addition to the Parra trade, the Brewers made a flurry of other moves before the July 31 trade deadline. Of the seven prospects they added to the system, two were outfielders that slotted into the top four overall in Milwaukee’s prospect rankings, according to MLB Pipeline: CF Brett Phillips and corner OF Domingo Santana. Of the Brewers top 30 prospects, 10 play in the outfield, including six currently playing at AA or above. That’s a lot of players that figure to be battling for time in the next couple of seasons. Ryan Braun and his $105 million contract are entrenched in right field through 2020, and unless he switches positions or Milwaukee somehow finds a way to deal him, that means only two starting spots up for grabs among the Brewers’ suddenly deep stable of MLB ready or near-ready outfield depth: Davis, Shane Peterson, Santana, Phillips, Michael Reed, Kyle Wren, Tyrone Taylor, and Victor Roache. Domingo Santana, in particular, could push Davis hard as soon as later this season. The Brewers #4 overall prospect has already made his MLB debut (and figures to be a September call-up this season) and has posted an incredible 1.016 OPS and 17 home runs in 81 games between Houston’s and Milwaukee’s AAA affiliates this season. Santana has some holes in his swing (a strikeout rate approaching 30% this season), but if he can make enough contact at the MLB level, his plus power and throwing arm should play well in the corner outfield.
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Without being a plus defender in the outfield, Davis will need to prove to manager Craig Counsell and Brewers’ brass with his bat that he should continue to be the team’s everyday answer in left field. Davis has performed well since the Parra trade, collecting eight hits (two home runs) and five walks in his last 37 plate appearances. Davis has demonstrated an improved eye at the plate so far this season, walking in 11.2% of his plate appearances (after just a 5.8% walk rate in 2014), and he’s reduced his swing at pitches outside the zone by four percent since last year. Overall, Davis is swinging at three percent less pitches than he did last season, but this less aggressive approach has had it’s downfalls, as well.
Davis is seeing first pitch strikes in 60.6% of his plate appearances this season, an increase of nearly 3.5% over last year. Though he has managed a 109 wRC+ mark in 0-1 counts, constantly being behind has taken it’s toll on Davis strikeout totals. Khrush is striking out in 27.2% of his plate appearances, thanks in large part to a career high 14.7% swinging strike rate and just a 76.1% contact rate on pitches in the strike zone, which ties for fourth lowest in the MLB (min 200 plate appearances). His line drive rate and hard hit rate have fallen three and six percent, respectively, this season as well.
Davis’ overall numbers of a .237/.324/.434 slash line this season won’t do much to dispel the notion that he isn’t the long term solution in left field. The next two months could be the most important in the 27 year old’s young career, and will go along way to helping determine if Davis will open 2016 as the Brewers’ starting left fielder. Unless Khris Davis can put it all together soon at the plate to become the disciplined power hitter that he has shown the he has shown the potential to be, he could find himself on the trade block as soon as this winter or before next year’s trade deadline. As a right handed power hitter with four more years of club control, there would be no shortage of suitors for Davis’ services. Davis has proven the type of power that will keep him in the big leagues, but whether his future lies in Milwaukee or elsewhere has yet to be determined.