Almost two years ago to the day, this was the title of an article published on Athleticism:
All of the Mets’ defensive issues, with a severe spotlight on JD Davis, were on display in their loss to the Cubs
It was a loud comments section, as you’d expect after an awkward blowout, and there wasn’t a single person who disagreed with the underlying premise of that headline: the Mets’ defense was bad, and the commissioning of JD Davis was the most glaring problem. . He was a DH playing third base, and he was statistically and anecdotally one of the worst defensemen in baseball. A commentator wondered if Dominic Smith would have been better in third (Smith throws left-handed).
On Wednesday, when the Giants needed two more outs to secure a series win, Davis put on brilliant defensive play. Except it wasn’t just brilliant defensive play, but one of the rarest subgenres of brilliant defensive play: it was boring. Worker. He made it look easy and expected.
It’s easy to dwell on mistakes and blunders, but it’s the plays that kill a team when they’re not made. If Davis doesn’t choose that and fire a laser first, it’s first and third with one out. You have Dave Flemming and Javier López rightly pointing out that it was a tough game, and maybe a mistake is charged and maybe not if the game isn’t made. Either way, the Astros would have the winning run on base, with one extra out to play.
Two years after the spotlight was shone on Davis’ defense, he’s thriving. He didn’t just go from unplayable to playable at rank three. He has not only become a defender capable of staying on the sidelines. He’s become an excellent defender, and it’s not just our easily misled eyeballs telling us that. Here are the current leaders for Outs Above Average for every position in baseball, not just third base:
Davis is tied with eight other players, including baseball’s two highest-ranked center backs and two shortstops. It’s not just that stat either. FanGraphs’ defensive metrics rank him as the best non-receiver in the National League, period. According to Runs Above Average, no baseball defenseman has scored more runs.
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that this is one of the most surprising developments in baseball over the past two years. It’s not unlike Tyler Rogers going 94 mph, or Kelby Tomlinson becoming a 90th percentile exit speed guy. So I have four questions:
• Should we have seen it coming?
• Will this continue?
• What can we learn from this?
Let’s try to answer them, one by one:
The first question could probably be answered in a book length format. The science of positioning, the value of repetition and consistency, the neuroscience behind the added pressure of New York baseball…my stars, ask Malcolm Gladwell to write a book on this subject that I won’t read.
But Davis spoke to reporters after the April 25 game and he laid down some of the groundwork. There is, indeed, a technical component to this:
“When I was with the Mets…I was very wide in my stance,” Davis said. “So it would make me a bit slower going left to right. Front and back I was fine, but left and right…”
He talked about all sorts of technical details that the average viewer (or columnist) might not think of as the play unfolds, like softening the hands, and he mentioned the work he put into his backhand. He talked about the work he did with Kai Correa, and he checked out Tommy La Stella’s Little Red Machine name.
However, Davis also said something else enlightening: “All I can ask for is just to keep getting reps and keep having games under my belt.”
It’s something that comes up again and again. Nothing is more important than experience to a defenseman, and I’ve referenced Russell Carleton’s study on this so many times I should send him a case of It’s Its packed in dry ice. It came with Thairo Estrada’s weird defensive stats, and it applies to every type of super utility Giants are trying to find and/or create. And while it seemed like Davis’ defensive reputation was set in stone with the Mets, he didn’t play there as much as one might think. Here are the seasons of his career, ranked by the most innings spent at third base:
1. 2021 (382 rounds)
2. 2020 (269 rounds)
3. 2019 (220 rounds)
4. 2023 (180 innings)
In about two weeks, before the end of May, Davis should have more innings at third base in a season than he has had in any season other than 2021. He finally has the chance to feel at home. comfortable on the third.
Heading into the 2021 season, Davis’ defense at third was a big story in New York. Except it drew attention as one of those pre-season storylines, where there’s a sense of optimism. The New York Post’s Mike Puma spoke to Gary DiSarcina — the Mets version of Kai Correa — and there was a similar story. Rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals. Pre-launch positioning. Footwork. Except that this story ended with titles like the one at the beginning of this article.
My opinion of Armchair is that the scrutiny of his glove did not help him. Hear the Mets announcers’ surprise on this pitch:
The glove tap was one thing. It was part of the Mets talk, and the rap about Davis was that his biggest liability was between his ears. It wasn’t so much the range or the physical limitations, but an inability to make the simple plays right in front of him. You hear “change of scenery” so often that it no longer makes sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real thing. You can’t just assume Davis’ defensive improvements would have happened with another year with the Mets.
After starting the 2021 season with the Mets’ commitment to making Davis an everyday third baseman, he played just four games at that position in September. In 2022, he only played 45 innings for the Mets before the trade, getting five starts. Universal DH gave the team an out, which ended the experiment at third base.
Should we see it coming?
I feel like the answer should be a resounding no. But I go with a half-hearted “maybe”.
For one thing, his arm was never the issue. Check out this heat:
Davis said, “To me, an 80 percent throw is better than most guys, and that’s not cocky,” and explained how a faster release was more valuable to him than an extra step. . Once that idea takes hold and is implemented in game situations, boom. Instant improvement.
But that kind of tuning only goes so far. You give me 10,000 hours with the Little Red Machine and I’ll still be a clankmitt. We’re talking about 99th percentile athletes turning into 99.1 or 99.2 percentile athletes. Some outfielders will never make that final leap from “better than almost every other human being at the field of play” to “better than the other Major League Baseball third basemen at the field of play at the field.”
So, in another, broader way: No. We shouldn’t have seen this coming. But the Giants could have.
After Davis was buried at DH with the Mets, the Giants immediately gave him plenty of time at third base. It’s not like the Giants are known for a defense-first approach when it comes to roster building and roster building, but they saw something they could work with. And they were right.
Will this continue?
I do not see why.
It sounds mischievous, like a “Here’s what’s wrong with the bullpen” article published just before an important game. But even though defensive stats are notorious for being inconsistent and prone to small samples, it’s hard to fake the improvements Davis has made in terms of his lateral movement and overall decision. My guess is that he won’t end the season with better pitch metrics than Nolan Arenado, like he has now, but will be an unambiguous defensive asset.
Again, as recently as 2021, Davis was one of baseball’s worst defensemen. During the first half of 2022, he was an “emergency only” third baseman. Now, he may be the Giants’ best defenseman and, statistically, one of the best in baseball after just over a month. When there’s such a steep 180 degree turn, it doesn’t hurt to pump the brakes a bit. I’ve always been proud that I haven’t written about Joe Panik’s pitching angle and surging power after hitting three homers in the first five games of 2018.
It’s not look false, however. And just for good measure, sort the league by “estimated hit rate” to see where the Giants’ various infielders end up. Davis averages more hard chances than most infielders in baseball. The same goes for other giants, which makes me think it’s a byproduct of a pitching stick that forces hitters to hit the ball into the ground. Davis doesn’t just manipulate the cupcakes without making mistakes; it works for these releases.
What can we learn from this?
This baseball is weird, man.
This hard work can pay off.
This experience, muscle memory and repetition are important for defensive players.
This baseball is uncomfortably weird sometimes.
That when it comes to players so talented that they join the ultra-elite club of major league baseball players, let’s just assume the cap is generally higher than you might expect when it comes to concerns potential improvements.
This baseball revels in good surprises in addition to Pennywise-type surprises.
And that maybe – just maybe – we shouldn’t close the door on the 2021 narrative that had the Giants as a smart team that could help their defensemen improve. Remember, there was evidence that last year’s defensive collapse had a lot to do with bad luck, even if it’s embarrassing to point it out.
Either way, welcome to the future, in which JD Davis is apparently good on defense. Hit the weights, Kelby, and see if 30 home runs are in your future. Start doing the Driveline exercises, Tyler, and see if there’s another 10 miles per hour in that arm. Because if this is the new reality, more baseball developments are possible than we ever thought.
(Davis top photo: Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)