The Curious Case of J.D. Davis, MLB’s Hardest Hitter

Despite hitting the ball harder than anyone in baseball, why hasn't J.D. Davis provided more power to the Mets lineup in 2022?

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 03: New York Mets designated hitter J.D. Davis (28) looks on during a regular season game between the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers on June 3, 2022, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

This season, J.D. Davis is literally hitting the baseball harder than any other player in the sport. Aaron Judge has 24 home runs and a .686 slugging percentage. Davis hits the ball harder.

Yordan Alvarez was just minted with a new contract extension that makes him the highest-paid designated hitter in the game today. He is hitting .315/.403/.625, with 17 home runs and a 192 wRC+ this season. Davis hits the ball harder.

Through his first 82 batted ball events this season, Davis has hit 53 with an exit velocity of 95 MPH or higher. This gives him a HardHit% of 64.6%, which is .4 of a point higher than Alvarez at 64.2% and two full points higher than Judge at 62.6%.

Now I am not here to make an argument for Davis being one of the game’s great sluggers. Judge and Alvarez are hitting the ball hard over a larger sample and they are getting the ultimate result you want from that hard contact, home runs.

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Instead today I would like to explore the curious case of J.D. Davis. The hardest-hitting singles machine in baseball today.

Understanding “Expected” vs. Actual Production

Trying to understand J.D. Davis’ offensive value is like trying to put together pieces of a puzzle without the edges. Nothing quite fits.

Davis is an expected metric darling. We have already discussed his HardHit%, but digging deeper into his Baseball Savant, you will see that his xBA of .313 ranks in 94th percentile among hitters and his .570 xSLG ranks in the 93th percentile. Davis’ average exit velocity of 93.9 MPH is in the top two percent of the league.

Yet with all that said, Davis’ .119 ISO for the season is ranked 215th among hitters with 100 PA this season. When it comes to Isolated Power, instead of keeping company with Judge and Alvarez, Davis is around the likes of Randal Grichuk, Nico Hoerner and Jackie Bradley Jr.

Isolated Power essentially removes a player’s batting average from their slugging percentage, telling you how often a player hits for extra-bases. Davis is hitting .263/.346/.381 this season, with two home runs and only nine total extra-base hits.

Again, he has 53 batted ball events over 95 MPH, but is still not in double-digits when it comes to his extra-base hits on the season. Something doesn’t add up there.

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Here is where we can solve this riddle. By paying attention to the contact that Davis makes.

As someone who has watched almost every single one of Davis’ 1,029 plate appearances in a Mets uniform, I can tell you exactly why Davis does not get extra-base hits.

Because he hits line drives directly at people.

The best way to comprehend Davis’ deficiencies as a hitter is to compare him to his teammate, Pete Alonso, who embodies everything it means to be a modern-day slugger.

So far this season, Alonso and Davis have a nearly identical xwOBA (.402 and .401 respectively), meaning their contact is “expected” to have a comparable on-base value. Expected Weighted On-base Average (xwOBA) uses exit velocity, launch angle and even sprint speed to determine a player’s offensive on-base value.

Davis is consistently hitting the ball extremely hard, which is skewing all of his data. The reality is that not all 95 MPH piss missiles are created equal. Davis allows defenses to field his hard-hit balls because he is a line drive hitter that does not pull the ball enough. Alonso on the other hand does both of those things well.

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For his career Davis has a 8.7 degree launch angle and this year that is coming just a tick above that at 9.1. Compare that to the two-time defending Home Run derby champ’s career 15.5 degree launch angle and it is clear the difference between these players.

This year, Alonso has hit 84 baseballs at 95 MPH or higher out of 179 batted ball events for a HardHit% of 46.9%. Because Alonso is technically hitting the ball hard almost 20% less frequently than Davis, the expected metrics value them closer than there actual production warrants.

From watching Alonso’s at-bats this season, we have seen him beat the shift by shooting the ball through the vacant second-base hole in RBI situations, padding his traditional stats, while hurting his advanced ones.

Those singles aren’t hit very hard, but they are obviously very productive. Alonso is leading the National League with 57 RBIs, 44 more than Davis’ 13.

Alonso has a great game plan at the dish right now and he is executing it flawlessly. When it is time to shorten up in RBI situations, he does that, and when its time to launch, he can lift with the best of them.

Alonso’s 19.2 degree launch angle is a career-high and it has led to an NL-best 18 home runs.

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There are three factors that play into hitting home runs and we have already discussed two of them. Hitting the ball hard with launch angle is a good recipe for success, but another factor is where these fly balls are endings up.

Alonso is hitting fly balls 43% of the time this year. Those fly balls have turned into home runs 23.4% of the time. Davis on the other hand, only lifts fly balls 25.6% of the time, with a home run to fly ball rate of just 9.5%. The difference between their fly balls is where they are hit.

Davis hits 41.5% of his balls to center field, while only pulling the ball 36.6% of the time. Alonso on the other hand, pulls 47.5% and goes to center just 29.6% of the time.

It is easier to hit home runs down the line than it is to hit them dead central.

It is also harder to hit for doubles and triples up the middle than it is when you drive the baseball down the line.

Now with all that being said, an obvious statement needs to be made. It is not easy to be Pete Alonso and comparing anyone to him is unfair.

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Davis is still a very productive MLB hitter. He is just one that may be overvalued by the “expected” metrics that don’t quite pick up the flaws in his approach that keep him from the being elite hitter he is “expected” to become.

Davis is Still Extremely Valuable to the Mets

While J.D. Davis is not the prototypically designated hitter who is capable of mashing 30 home runs and driving in 90, he is still a very functional cog in what has become a potent Mets offense. Really if you look back at his first four seasons on the Mets, this is the best he has ever fit their roster and identity as a ballclub.

The bat has never been the question for Davis, it has always been the glove. Now with the Mets finally having a DH spot to put him, the glove is no longer standing in the way of getting him in the lineup.

Since 2019, Davis’ 128 wRC+ is third on the Mets behind Alonso and Brandon Nimmo. Among batters with at least 500 plate appearances, Davis ranks second on the Mets in batting average (.284), on-base percentage (.369) and slugging percentage (.460). Simply put, Davis gives the Mets good professional at-bats and when there is a functional lineup around him, that is all you need.

Dom Smith was demoted by the Mets on May 31st. Ten days prior, Davis began to receive more of the playing time after previously serving as the right-handed half of a DH platoon with Smith.

Over the last 16 games played since getting regular at-bats, Davis has six multi-hit games. He is hitting .357/.403/.482 with a 156 wRC+ during that span.

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For the time being, the primary DH job is J.D. Davis’ to lose. He fits the Mets ‘pass the baton’ lineup perfectly and is giving them far more production than they received earlier this season with Smith and Robinson Cano before that.

Still, with top prospects that have serious home run pop on the horizon in Mark Vientos and Francisco Alvarez, it is fair to wonder when Davis’ finds himself hitting his 95 MPH line drive singles in another uniform.