Taking a look at Khris Davis’s 2021 season
With the 2021 season coming to a close, we are going to look back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers. The season isn’t over yet, of course, but there are a number of players who are on the injured list or otherwise won’t be playing the rest of the way, so we can start by looking at those guys whose seasons are done, and once the season is over we can include guys who are still in action.
Today we are looking at DH Khris Davis.
It must be a strange feeling to be a highly-paid professional athlete, someone who has played at the highest level and had success and received a guaranteed deal for wealth that ensures you will be more than comfortable for life, and to be viewed as salary ballast rather than a functional member of a roster and a player with value.
We see this most often in the NBA, due to the nature of the league’s salary cap and the necessity of matching salaries to make deals work. In the NBA it goes so far that the nature of the highly-paid player’s contract in some situations will provide virtually all the value a team derives from the player, due to the high annual salary and short term. I remember when Theo Ratliff’s Expiring Contract was a highly sought after commodity, for example.
Since MLB doesn’t have a salary cap, contract matching is less of an issue, but it is still a factor when teams are shuffling bad contracts around, or taking on money in the form of an expensive player who has limited on-field value in order to get other assets. B.J. Upton’s salary was being split between the Braves, the Padres and the Blue Jays at one point, if I remember correctly, while the Rangers are subsidizing some of Rougned Odor’s salary with the New York Yankees through next year.
Thus it is with Khris Davis, one time power hitter, a guy who appeared on MVP ballots in 2017 and 2018, and who signed an extension with the Oakland A’s for $33.5 million for 2020-21 prior to the 2019 season. This was a deal that was described as a “head scratcher” by Bruce Jenkins in the San Francisco Chronicle soon after it was inked — not because the A’s supposedly overpaid, but because Davis agreed to what Jenkins felt was a much smaller deal than Davis deserved, and could have gotten if he hit free agency.
Folk wisdom holds that righthanded sluggers fall off quickly in their early 30s, however, and this deal covered Davis’s age 32 and 33 seasons. Prior to the 2019 season Davis had made around $17 million in his major league career, and between the extension and Davis’s $16.5 million he was getting for his final arbitration year in 2019, that guaranteed him $50 million — even after taxes, a pretty hefty bird in the hand.
And as it turns out, Davis made the smart decision. He cratered in 2019, ending his streak of four straight seasons hitting exactly .247 and four straight seasons of an 800+ OPS, slashing .220/.293/.387 in 533 plate appearances. The COVID-shortened 2020 season was no better, as he put up a 632 OPS, with the result being he was shipped off to Texas in the Elvis Andrus deal, Texas taking him not because they wanted the player, but because they had to take on salary to consummate the trade.
The reaction to the trade from Rangers fans was interesting. There was a segment of the fan base treating this as the Rangers giving up a fan favorite for an aging slugger rather than trying to rebuild. There were folks complaining that this was the Rangers being cheap, dumping Elvis’s larger guaranteed deal in order to have Davis’s smaller contract, that expired after 2021, instead.
The reality was that this was about moving Elvis out as part of the rebuild, getting some young talent in the form of Jonah Heim and Dane Acker, but also shifting some financial obligations from 2022 to 2021 . Elvis was due $14 million in 2021 and $14 million in 2022, and the Rangers sent $6.25 million of that in 2021 and $7.25 million in 2022. Davis was paid $16.75 million in 2021. The net effect was that the Rangers turned a $14 million obligation in 2021 and a $14 million obligation in 2022 for a player that was not in their plans into a $22.75 million obligation in 2021, a $7.25 million obligation in 2022, Heim, and Acker. They spent $2 million more overall two acquire talent, while also absorbing more salary in 2021 and reducing their obligations in 2022 by $6.75 million, theoretically freeing up more money to spend in 2022.
Still, the folks who view Nolan Ryan as the reason behind the Rangers’ success early in the 2010s, who think “prospect” is just another word for “hasn’t done jack shit yet,” and who wanna know when we’re gonna get sum pitchin’ in here tended to cast this as an Elvis for Khris Davis deal, and when Khris Davis, predictably, flopped, it was pointed to as yet another bad deal by the clowns in the front office. Davis being signed to a minor league deal by the A’s after he was released by the Rangers generated even more yuks, since the Rangers were now paying Davis to play for the team that traded him to the Rangers in the first place! And Davis always kills the Rangers, so of course the A’s brought him to the majors right before they played Texas!
The reality is that what Davis did for the Rangers once they acquired him was pretty much irrelevant. I predicted the Rangers would designated Davis for assignment as soon as the deal was consummated, much like they did with Austin Jackson when they acquired him for the San Francisco Giants in the Jason Bahr deal. That didn’t happen, though. The Rangers held on to Davis and brought him in to camp, talking about his veteran leadership in a very young clubhouse and the possibility he could be a weapon against lefties.
Davis, as we all recall, strained his hamstring in a spring training game, started the year on the injured list, and then was activated in early May, reportedly saying in his first hitter’s meeting after being activated, “I’m gonna get this team to the playoffs.” From the outside it was a cringy moment, though it was made at a time when the Rangers were still playing respectably — they were 18-18 on May 9, and just three games out of first place in the A.L. West, so Davis’s bravado wasn’t quite so far-fetched as it would appear in retrospect. The Rangers promptly lost six in a row and nine of ten games. After a three game sweep at home against the Astros, including a pair of extra inning walkoff wins, the Rangers lost nine more in a row and 12 of 13. The playoffs were no longer even a pipe dream, Davis wasn’t hitting, and a few days later Davis would be designated for assignment, having slashed .157/.262/.333 as a Ranger.
Davis did, of course, end up back with Oakland, signing a minor league deal in early August and being brought up not long thereafter though he slashed just .255/.283/.392 for an Oakland team that fell apart in the second half of the season — the A’s, recall, were in first place when the Rangers released Davis, but went 38-42 from July 1 through the end of the season. We — well, I, anyway — mocked the Yankees and Blue Jays for being buyers at the trade deadline because I thought the WC1 was locked up by either Boston or the Rays, and Oakland had a big enough lead for WC2 that the chances of the Yankees or Jays surpassing them were remote. We know how that worked out.
Davis didn’t even come back to haunt the Rangers in 2021 post-release — he was 2 for 8 with a 625 OPS against Texas when he played against them in mid-September, and the Rangers took two of three against Oakland in that series. His destroying of the Rangers ended when his time as a productive hitter ended — he had a 650 OPS against Texas in 2020 and a 643 OPS against Texas in 2019.
That doesn’t change his legacy, though, at least among us Rangers fans, as someone who dominated Texas. For his career he slashed .271/.357/.654 against the Rangers, and his 1011 OPS was his third highest against any team, trailing just the 1016 OPS he had against San Francisco and the 1015 OPS he had against the Padres.
My guess is that Davis’s major league career is done — he might retire this offseason, or he might get an NRI with some team, but I think it is more likely than not he’s faced the Rangers for the last time. And even with his recent struggles, if that’s the case, there will be a collective sigh of relief from Rangers fans.