There hasn’t been much doubt that J.D. Davis can hit. He got some very limited playing time with the Astros in 2017 and 2018 but burst onto the scene with the Mets after being acquired in a trade prior to the 2019 season. He went on to hit 22 home runs that year and slashed .307/.369/.527 for a wRC+ of 137. Defensively, the Mets put him in left field more often than his primary position of third base. He graded poorly in both spots but he still hit enough that he produced 2.5 wins above replacement on the year, per the calculations of FanGraphs.
Although 2019 was the “juiced ball” season, Davis wasn’t a one-year fluke at the plate, continuing to hit in the years since. His .247/.371/.389 line in the shortened 2020 season was a bit beneath the year before but still good enough for a 118 wRC+. In 2021, he made multiple trips to the injured list due to recurring issues in his left hand and only got into 73 games but still batted .285/.384/.436 for a 129 wRC+ when he was healthy enough to step up to the plate.
Last year, he was hitting .238/.324/.359 for the Mets through 66 games for a wRC+ of just 102 when the Giants took a flier on him, acquiring him alongside three other players in the deadline deal that sent Darin Ruf to Queens. The Elk Grove native quickly got things back on track after moving to the West Coast, slashing .263/.361/.496 down the stretch for a 142 wRC+.
Even with that strong finish, he didn’t have a secure hold on a full-time gig coming into this year. The Giants had seen one of their prospects, David Villar, perform well in his major league debut last year by hitting .231/.331/.455 in 52 games. Back in mid-February, the club’s president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said the Giants considered Villar to be their starting third baseman heading into Spring Training.
Despite all that solid work at the plate, the major concern about Davis has been his defense. From 2019 to 2022, Davis was considered to be worth -25 Defensive Runs Saved at third base, one of the five worst marks in the majors at that position for that time frame. Ultimate Zone Rating and Outs Above Average weren’t quite as negative but also graded him as being subpar.
The club clearly liked Davis enough to acquire him but they also wanted to see what they had in Villar, a player much younger and with more club control. That left Davis with some work to do, something that Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle discussed with him as Spring Training was just getting going. Davis talked about how he had been working with bench coach and infield/baserunning instructor Kai Correa on his defense, particularly his footwork, while manager Gabe Kapler highlighted his propensity for swinging and missing at pitches in the strike zone as his weak point on offense.
We’re now roughly three months removed from Zaidi declaring Villar the club’s third baseman and that profile on Davis, and the picture has completely changed since then. Davis hit a torrid .311/.354/.467 in the spring while Villar limped to a line of .143/.167/.286. Villar still got six starts at third base in the club’s first 10 regular season games but only got two more after that as he’s hit .148/.240/.318 on the year so far and was optioned to the minors a couple days ago.
Davis, meanwhile, has taken the job at the hot corner and is running off with it. He already has seven home runs and is slashing .294/.368/.492 for a wRC+ of 136, just a hair under his 2019 breakout. His average exit velocity is in the 95th percentile of qualified hitters and his hard hit rate 94th. His contact rate on pitches in the zone is 82.9%, the highest of his career. His 25% strikeout rate is still higher than average, but it’s a big improvement over the past two seasons, each of which saw him finish above 32%.
But perhaps most remarkably, his defensive grades have improved dramatically. DRS has Davis at league-average at third this year, no small feat considering his woeful grading in previous years. UZR gives him a grade of 1.1 for the season so far, one of the top 10 among major league third basemen. Outs Above Average currently has him at +4, trailing only Josh Rojas, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Eugenio Suárez at the hot corner. This is a small sample size of just 259 2/3 innings, so it’s too soon to decisively declare Davis a plus defender, but there’s seems to be a budding consensus that his glovework has taken a meaningful step forward.
Davis seems to be in peak form both at the plate and in the field, which has allowed him to produce 1.3 fWAR already in just 38 games, more than halfway to his career-high of 2.5 from that 2019 season. While the Giants are surely thrilled by those developments, it could lead them to a difficult decision a few months from now. Overall, the club has struggled to an 18-23 start to the season, putting them behind the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Padres in the National League West. There’s still plenty of time for the club to turn things around, but there’s a chance they may have to consider some selling when the trade deadline approaches.
Davis came into this season with between four and five years of service time. That means he can still be retained via arbitration for 2024 and isn’t an impending free agent. The club won’t feel they absolutely have to move him, but it would at least warrant some consideration if they find themselves outside the playoff race. Given his strong performance, year-and-a-half of control and modest $4.21MM salary this year, he would surely garner plenty of interest. There’s a handful of contenders with question marks at third base who would likely pick up the phone, such as the Twins, Phillies and Yankees. The Giants could flip him for some younger and cheaper players, then perhaps give Villar another shot at the big leagues in the latter months of the season. The alternative would be holding onto Davis and hoping for better results as a team next year before he reaches the open market.
Of course, the club will be hoping they play well enough over the next few months they don’t even have to consider that path. Despite their sluggish start, they’re only two games back of a Wild Card spot at the moment due to slow starts from other contenders like the Phillies, Mets and Padres. There’s no sense in shoveling dirt on their season just yet, but front offices have to consider all potential avenues and will surely be having conversations about how they want to proceed.
Time will tell how that plays out, but for now, it’s all good news. The Giants sent Ruf to the Mets and acquired Davis less than a year ago. Even if it were just a one-for-one swap, that deal already looks like a huge win, since Ruf has gone in the opposite direction since then. He was released by the Mets earlier this year, briefly returned to the Giants, and just yesterday signed with the Brewers. Of course, it wasn’t a one-for-one swap. The Giants also got Thomas Szapucki, Nick Zwack and Carson Seymour in the trade. If any of those pitchers can develop into useful pieces, it will be icing on a cake that is already very sweet thanks to Davis.