Khris Davis
Have teams figured out how to pitch Khris Davis? The down 2019 season for Davis is part of a larger theme that’s coming to baseball. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

One of the reasons why I love baseball is because there are so many games within the game. The amount of data in the sport has far surpassed any other. I believe teams continue to get smarter about the way they approach the game. One classic example is A’s slugger, Khris Davis. What once was a model consistency fell off a cliff in 2019. Have teams figured out how to pitch Khris Davis?

Davis, 32, is notorious for hitting .247 for 4 consecutive years. 3 of the 4 years from 2015-2018, Davis hit well over 40 home runs. All 3 with the A’s. The one season he didn’t was his last year in Milwaukee. Oakland stole Davis from Milwaukee getting a dynamic slugger for prospects that turned into nothing. The problem is Khris performed closer to Chris Davis than his usual self in 2019. It makes you wonder if he has high productivity years remaining.

As time goes on, teams become smarter. The shift has become more and more prevalent in the game. In prior years, the shift was really utilized to take away heavy pull hitters from the left side. Players like Joey Gallo stopped getting those ground ball singles through the right side of the infield in between the first baseman and second baseman. The shift brought a 3rd infielder to the right side to whip what would have been hits in the past. There was no downside because these pull heavy left-handed bats were never going to hit the ball the other way.

More recently, teams have figured out that, hey… we can shift right-handed hitters too! There’s no reason why we can’t bring the 2nd baseman to the other side for right-handed hitters. I’m not sure anybody got hit harder by this than Khris Davis.

Khris Davis
(Baseball Savant)
Khris Davis
(Baseball Savant)

Shifts on the left side aren’t as prevalent in the game. They’re coming, believe me. You can see by the chart here, Davis’ ground balls are getting chewed up by the shift. The man that used to his .247 every year, saw his average drop to .220 in 2019. More concerning, Davis hit .200 in the second half when more and more teams started to catch on.

The data doesn’t lie on this one. The Shift percentage increased dramatically against Davis in 2019.

2016: 16.4%

2017: 13.4%

2018: 21%

2019: 39.9%

The A’s might be worried here. They gave Davis a two-year extension worth $33.5 million last April. That shift number (if there’s a season) will only increase moving forward. 2019 was a horrendous campaign for Davis. His OPS of .679 and his wRC+ (81) aren’t acceptable.

It’s hard to find an excuse for Davis being just a fluky down year. The A’s DH suffered an oblique injury in May and got hit by a pitch on the hand in June. However, the 1st half of the year he hit way better than the latter half. More than anything, I think it’s mental. We often think of baseball as a numbers sport, but there is a human element. There is a distinct possibility the shift has messed with many hitters mentally. Davis could fall into that category.

There is evidence to support that theory. Davis was overly aggressive last year. That’s called frustration. He swung that bat 82.2 percent of pitches inside the strike zone. Davis was less patient in 2019 than in past years. But why? Likely because he didn’t want to get deep into counts knowing the pitches on the outside part of the plate were coming where he would just hit into the shift.

I’m going to compare Davis’ hitting zone from 2017, 2018, and 2019. The shift has caused drastic outcomes.

hitting zones
(Baseball savant)
hitting zones
(baseball savant)
Khris Davis hitting zones
(baseball savant)

Let’s go over each one in a year by year column.

A: Total pitches. Two things is drastic. High fastballs have been reduced and anything on the lower inside corner isn’t happening in 2019. Davis is now being attacked on the bottom outside corner. More often than not, those pitches are being rolled over into the shift. The opposition has a gameplan and it’s working.

B: As a result, Davis is swinging at more pitches on the outside half. Things aren’t going well.

C: Davis’ strikeout rate falls right in line with his career average (27.4 percent in 2019). The problem is he’s not creating good contact anymore. Davis’ launch angle dropped from 18.1 to 13.2 degrees. Consequentially, his ground ball rate also dipped from 48.8% in 2018 to 37.4% last year. SHIFT…

More than anything, Davis’ opposite field rate has dropped more than anything. Khris Davis hit 16 opposite field home runs in 2018 which ranked 2nd in baseball. His opposite field production essentially vanished. Davis notched a wOBA on opposite-field fly balls was just .264. 2018 Davis recorded a .489 in the same category. What changed? SHIFT…

Baseball is more than see ball, hit ball. There are a million games within the game. One of the themes that is coming is the struggles right-handed hitters will have against the shift. The shift is no longer prejudice against lefties. She’s coming for righties too and you better be mentally capable of what’s coming. Can Davis rebound? That remains to be seen.