The Reds signed free agent Matt Davidson to a minor league contract on January 2, 2020. A non-roster invitee, Davidson had a big spring in the Before Times at Goodyear that he’s followed up with an impressive training camp at GABP.
The Reds began making roster choices yesterday and Aristides Aquino was optioned to the Alternate Training Site. That move clears the way for Davidson to make the team as a right-handed bench bat and Designated Hitter.
We figured it’s time to get to know Matt Davidson.
Pro Baseball Career
The Arizona Diamondbacks selected Davidson out of Yucaipa High School in the first round of the 2009 draft. Yucaipa is about an hour out in the desert east of Los Angeles. Four years later, Davidson debuted in the Majors as a 22-year-old and received 87 plate appearances for the Diamondbacks in 2013. He was a teammate of new Reds starter Wade Miley.
The following offseason, Davidson was part of a significant trade bringing closer Addison Reed to Arizona from the Chicago White Sox. Reed had recorded 40 saves for the White Sox the previous year. The White Sox assigned Davidson to their AAA-Charlotte affiliate and he played the 2014-2016 seasons for the Knights.
Davidson, then 26, made the White Sox in 2017 and got 941 plate appearances over the span of two seasons. He played 1B and 3B for Chicago but primarily filled the role of DH. (Davidson had expressed interest in being a two-way player in the Majors. He pitched in three games for the White Sox, retiring 9 of the 11 batters he faced and striking out Giancarlo Stanton.) During his two seasons with the White Sox, Davidson hit .225/.291/.435 with an wRC+ of 95.
The White Sox didn’t tender Davidson at the end of 2018 and he became a free agent. The Texas Rangers signed him to a minor league deal for 2019 and he spent the season playing for their AAA-Nashville team. Davidson hit .264/.339/.527, including 33 home runs for the Sounds in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
Davidson became a free agent after the 2019 season leading to his deal with the Reds. He arrives to Cincinnati with 2.145 years of service time, meaning Davidson would qualify for arbitration in 2021.
Power and Plate Approach
As you might expect from a guy with a 6’3″, 230-lb. frame, Matt Davidson’s calling card is hitting the baseball long and far. Instead of attempting translation of his minor league power numbers to the Reds, let’s look at Davidson’s two years (2017-2018) with the White Sox.
Davidson’s isolated power (ISO) over 900+ plate appearances with Chicago was .210. That compares roughly to Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez before his breakthrough 2019 season.
Davidson’s walk-rate was great during his time in the minors. He averaged about 10%. In the two seasons with the White Sox, Davidson’s walk rate jumped from a terrible 4.3% (2017) to an above average 10.5% (2018). That means he progressed from being Brandon Phillips to Suarez in taking walks. Davidson’s chase-rate (the number of pitches he swings at out of the strike zone) is roughly league average. It also showed significant progress, decreasing from 33.6% in 2017 to 29.3% in 2018.
Davidson’s main weakness as a hitter has been swing-and-miss. His strikeout rate has been about 30% in the minor leagues and was 35% with the White Sox. League average those years was about 22%. Eugenio Suarez had the highest K% with the Reds last year at 28.5%.
Matt Davidson is a right-handed batter and he has performed much better throughout his career against left-handed pitchers. The data in this table is from his 941 plate appearances with the Chicago White Sox in 2017 and 2018.
Davidson’s batting average was 58 points higher, he walked more and struck out less against LHP. It’s interesting that he hit with more power — considerable power — against right-handers. More on that in a minute.
This table has more granular data and from just Davidson’s 2018 season (only season available from Baseball Savant).
At least in 2018, his most recent big league season, Davidson cut his swinging and called strikes against left-handed pitchers. In 2018, his ISO, which again is a measure of pure power, showed an edge on that side as well.
Davidson’s xwOBA (the expected value of all the balls he hit, taking into account strikeouts and walks) was .357 against left-handers and .312 against right-handers. Comparable Reds players in 2019 were Eugenio Suarez (.358), Jesse Winker (.354) and Curt Casali (.306) at the other end.
Davidson’s Role with the Reds
Matt Davidson seems like a pretty good bet to make the Reds initial 30-man roster. He should DH against left-handed pitchers. Davidson might even get an occasional start at 1B when Bell wants to rest Votto against a tough lefty. He could also come off the bench.
Keep in mind that Davidson isn’t a washout against right-handed pitchers. His wRC+ was 88 on that side with the White Sox. That’s just 12 percent below league average — fine for a pinch hitter. He’s shown power against RHP. Just ask Tyler Mahle about this …
… one of two long balls Davidson hit off Mahle last night.
The Reds signed Davidson to a minor league contract and he is therefore not yet on the 40-man roster. The Reds have one obvious player to cut to make room and that’s Scott Schebler. Schebler is out of options, which means the Reds can’t send him to the minors (Alternate Site in 2020) without exposing him to waivers.
Whether Davidson remains on the roster as it gets pared to 26 over the first month likely depends on how he performs, injuries and how Bell sees the strategic balance between pitching and position players evolve. The Reds also have Aquino waiting in Mason who could fill this role.
I have a good friend in Chicago who is a fancy lawyer. But the topic he knows (and cares) more about than anything else is White Sox baseball. He warns that Davidson’s strikeouts will break my heart. My friend may be right.
But if David Bell is judicious, Matt Davidson can fill a narrow but important role for the Reds. Davidson should provide consistent power and a solid on-base percentage against lefties and plausible depth off the bench against right-handed pitchers. And when the Reds make the World Series, if their opponent is the Yankees, Bell can bring Davidson in to pitch to the Bombers’ clean-up hitter.