Potential Player of Interest: Rajai Davis | The Process Report

Potential Player of Interest: Rajai Davis

The Rays finished the season 12th in the American League in stolen bases, the worst rank in franchise history and a departure from the norm during Joe Maddon’s tenure. Andrew Friedman mentioned in his season-ending press conference that he wouldn’t mind adding speed this winter. Don’t be surprised then if Rajai Davis’ name surfaces in connection with the Rays.

Davis, who turns 33 within the week, spent the past three season with the Blue Jays. During his time in Toronto, he averaged 42 stolen bases per season and swiped bags at an 80 percent success rate, figures that cemented his place as one of the league’s best thieves. Davis used the same speed and smarts to take the extra base 53 percent of the time; a rate that puts him on Desmond Jennings’ level.

Beyond the speed, Davis is intriguing for his track record against southpaws. Since 2011, Davis has batted .297/.363/.455 against lefties; production that compares favorably to other free-agent options, such as Jeff Baker (.287/.342/.496) and Michael Young (.319/.369/.442)—not to mention possible non-tender Drew Stubbs (.287/.336/.429). The Red Sox guaranteed Jonny Gomes $10 million last winter in part due to his numbers against lefties (.277/.387/.494), and while those marks are superior, they aren’t reflective of the likely salary gap between players.

Why might Davis be affordable? Because, while he offers value with his basestealing and work against lefties, he’s an otherwise flawed player. Despite great speed, Davis is no asset on defense. He struggles reading the ball off the bat, resulting in weird, inefficient routes. The Blue Jays stopped using Davis regularly in center field and shifted him to left field, where he profiles better.

The maddening episodes carry over to Davis’ work at the plate. He’s short (albeit thick) and he chokes up on the bat, yet no one will confuse his bat-to-ball skills with those of Jeff Keppinger or even James Loney. Davis’ stride is inconsistent and he tends to step in the bucket—that is, stride away from the plate. It’s a bad habit that hurts his plate coverage and makes him vulnerable to pitches located on the outside half or that break away from him:

Performance on Outside Pitches, 2011-2013

Davis .219 .268 .299
Average RHB .244 .330 .355

Davis is also slowing his progress toward first base by stepping in the bucket, though he still records plenty of infield hits. While he understands the strike zone, he rarely walks since he likes to swing the bat. Davis’ ability to prolong at-bats with foul after foul is nice, but too often he gets underneath the ball and pops it up, wasting his speed in the process.

Of course at the big-league level production trumps aesthetics. Davis isn’t the most graceful defender or hitter, but he belongs on a roster for as long as he’s able to steal bases and hit lefties. Under the right manager, it’s easy to see Davis providing value as a platoon outfielder and pinch runner. The flaws should keep his price in attainable range, and that, along with his skill set, could intrigue the Rays.

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