The Yankees could get a much-needed infield punch from new infield bat

MLB: Game One-Oakland Athletics at Minnesota Twins
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Before their Sunday loss to the Atlanta Braves, the New York Yankees completed a trade with the Oakland Athletics for infielder J.D. Davis. One of the biggest issues for the team this season has been their inability to get production from the corner infield, and Aaron Boone looks at Davis as a platoon option at first base. He’s posted a 98 wRC+ through his first 39 games of the season, hitting more grounders and struggling to hit for much power. With the team’s struggles against left-handed pitching, they hope the 31-year-old can provide a punch while Giancarlo Stanton deals with an injury.

An above-average hitter from 2019-2023 (five seasons), could the Yankees get more out of his profile and find a way to improve their infield with this recently DFA’d bat?

What Do the Yankees See In J.D. Davis?

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Oakland Athletics
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One of the biggest issues that J.D. Davis has in his game is that he struggles to pull the ball in the air, but the Yankees have the kind of ballpark for that kind of hitter. Davis shoots a lot of barrels to the opposite field, and as a right-handed hitter that means he’ll have a short porch in right field to work with. When looking at an overlay of his batted balls from 2022-2024

When overlayed over Yankee Stadium, there are some batted balls in right field that look like they could get out in this ballpark, and that’s supported by the data as well. Expected Home Runs are an important stat because they factor in weather and other variables, and they believe Davis would have had 39 home runs instead of 34 over that stretch, which seems like a small boost but for a hitter with a 109 wRC+, that’s the difference between a strong season at the plate and a mediocre one.

Davis is very aggressive in-zone, and while he often comes up empty on swings in-zone (75.4% Z-Contact%), the high volume of attempts there help him limit the strikeouts. Last season, J.D. Davis was in the 82nd Percentile in SEAGER score, which evaluates your swing decisions, and that was because he chased less than the MLB-average while maintaining freakishly-high aggression in the strike zone.

His combination of doing damage on contact, getting the ball in the air to right field, and attacking pitches in zone should make him a hotter commodity on the market, but this comes with some serious drawbacks as well. We already talked about the whiff concerns, but the lack of pulled flyball is a problem in any other ballpark that doesn’t have a friendly right field porch standing 314 feet away.

Then, there comes the frustrating struggles he has against pitches that quite frankly any hitter at the Major League level should be able to handle: upstairs heat.

See those zeroes? That’s J.D. Davis’ wOBA on sinkers and four-seamers at or above 95 MPH. That’s not struggling, that’s being flat-out dominated at the top of the zone by hard fastballs. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you that this is something that gets better for Davis, but there are some recommendations that come to mind. He’s flattened his swing a lot from 2023, which in theory should help him cover those pitches, but we haven’t seen that happen.

Maybe that flatter swing is why the Yankees are so interested in J.D. Davis, perhaps they view this as a positive step for him and a progression mechanically that just requires the right mindset to fully realize. Whatever it may be, the risk of having a hitter who quite literally cannot handle anything with velocity up in the zone creates a serious weakness when facing talented arms.

Despite that massive looming flaw, a lot of Davis’ struggles in Queens and San Francisco have been overblowm (offensively), as he wasn’t a complete and utter disaster at the plate. From 2021-2023, Davis posted a +0.80 Win Probability Added and 113 wRC+, and while he struggled in high leverage in ’21, in both 2022 and 2023 his wRC+ in those situations was well-above 150.

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MLB: New York Yankees at Kansas City Royals
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Here’s the reality of the situation; the Yankees will take whatever J.D. Davis can provide them, as at third base they have a 73 wRC+ and at first base it’s a 77. Ben Rice is a fun rookie who I have a lot of faith in, but with Giancarlo Stanton hurt they’ll have chances to play Davis at 1B, LeMahieu at 3B, and Rice at DH depending on the matchup. I do not believe LeMahieu has much left in the tank, but the Yankees are not going to pull the plug after 21 games of Major League action.

What the Yankees should avoid doing is using Davis to justify less playing time for Ben Rice. It would be both irresponsible and stupid to cut into his playing time (especially against LHP) consider how he’s held up against them at the MiLB level this year and in his brief time as a Major Leaguer. He has shown off some excellent contact skills with elite-level plate discpline, this isn’t the kind of hitter you relegate to a platoon role.

They’ll have a chance to improve their infield if J.D. Davis is even the 2023 version of himself, a 2 WAR player who provided a 104 wRC+ that would have been better away from a huge outfield like San Francisco’s. Davis projects for a 108 wRC+ from Steamer and a 112 by THE BAT X, which are positive signs for his bat moving forward, but it should also be noted that his wRC+ has gone down in each of the last three seasons.

He’s a hot-and-cold kind of hitter; in 2022 he had a 100 wRC+ with the Mets, changed teams, and posted a 144 wRC+ the rest of the way. In 2023, he had a 121 wRC+ in the first half and a 81 in the second. It’s a roll of the dice, but if it works out in the Yankees’ favor, this could be one of the better moves they made in a while. If it doesn’t? Then the Yankees are without Jordan Groshans (in Double-A) and will need to get more infield help; a zero-risk move.

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