Oops. While it may have never reached the stage of an official article, there has been plenty said about the Rajai Davis signing in spring training and none of it was good. Even those who liked the signing were happy because they felt Davis deserved further recognition for his World Series heroics, not because he was still capable of being a starting outfielder on a contending team.
Davis is 37 years old and the general rule about pure speed players is to dump them some time during their early 30’s. Some players fade out long before then due to injuries or weight gain, but even the greatest such player in history, Rickey Henderson, went from 73 steals per year (81.5% success rate) to 31 per year after he hit 35 years old (78.1%). Of course, not everyone is Rickey and the list below shows what happened to the five players most similar to Davis through age 36.
|Pat Kelly||32 of 250 SB after 33, Retired at 36|
|Scott Podsednik||Neg WAR after 33, Retired at 36|
|Milt Thompson||23 of 214 SB after 33, Retired at 37|
|Juan Beniquez||20 of 104 SB after 28, -0.9 WAR after 36|
|Mitch Webster||18 of 160 SB after 31, Retired at 36|
The list goes on with more of the same, but in general those players who don’t adapt as they age into high OBP/power players tend to fall by the wayside very quickly. Yes, Davis had an incredible run in 2016 worth 10 runs on the bases alone, but he was a detriment offensively and defensively for the Red Sox and A’s in 2017 making the Indians decision to leave him behind seem the correct one. At the same time the Indians were catching lightning in a bottle for the second consecutive season as Austin Jackson hit .318/.387/.482 on his way to a 1.9 WAR.
It has always been my opinion that in order to stay ahead of the game and catch the next break out star you need to move on, not hope that the guy who worked out last time would work out again. It appeared the Indians would do that this season, potentially with Melvin Upton, but they quickly soured on the former BJ and brought Davis in early enough that he could break camp with the team.
It’s far too early to judge Davis on his stats and it’s very possible that he will fall apart within the next few months, but at the moment, Davis is a perfect fit. On a team that has been the worst in baseball at scoring runs, getting on base, hitting for power, etc, Davis has been able to get on base fairly regularly and has stolen three bases in three attempts once there. More important than the actual steals may be his distraction factor, something the rest of the Indians lineup lacks. Also, while it may be more eye test than anything else at this point, Davis looks as fast as he’s ever been and hasn’t hurt the team defensively to this point. While numbers aren’t available from 2018, Davis was 12th in baseball in sprint speed in 2017 at 29.2 feet/second.
That fact alone is astounding. He’s the only player among the top 31 that was older than 31 and the only one over 29 in the top 15 and he’s 37 years old. It’s this incredible feat that may separate him from those other similar players who weren’t able to make it past 36. Injuries haven’t been a problem (he’s played at least 110 games every year since 2013 and over 90 every year since 2008, and he hasn’t attempted to turn into a slow footed power hitter.
With the constant caveat of “it’s still early,” there is little question that the Indians not only need Davis now (because the offense has started so slowly), but that they will need him long into the future. Lonnie Chisenhall getting knocked out for about six weeks thanks to a strained calf has brought Tyler Naquin back after just two days in AAA. This gives the Indians a starting outfield of Michael Brantley, Bradley Zimmer and Brandon Guyer, a risky proposition both defensively (the left side) and offensively (the right side). Davis at least gives the Indians a right handed bat to alternate with Brantley and Naquin, a base running threat if he isn’t starting and a defensive upgrade option. While Greg Allen could provide the latter two aspects, the Indians are protecting his service time by keeping him down for now and polishing him up before his eventual call-up. There’s also no guarantee Allen could immediately jump into being the kind of game altering base runner that Davis has been.
There will be a time of reckoning later this year, potentially when Chisenhall returns or when Francisco Mejia and Allen are pounding down the door from Columbus, but for now I must apologize to Mr. Davis for giving up on him at least a little too early.