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Villar and Davis: keys to the lineup?

Two flawed power bats might be the reason why the 2023 Giants improve upon last year’s team.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

With the calendar set to flip over to 2023, it’s time to start wondering just how the San Francisco Giants will improve upon last year’s offensive output: 716 runs (4.42/game), .311 wOBA. Mitch Haniger and Michael Conforto have been intriguing adds, but the key to the 2023 team’s success might be found in two holdovers: David Villar and J.D. Davis.

In a very small sample size (49 games; 158 PA), J.D. Davis hit .263/.361/.496 (.857 OPS) with the team, playing third base, first base, left field, and DH. At the end of September, I wondered if the Giants might trade Davis at some point in the offseason just because his power numbers were right in line with some of the top hitters in the league — based on not just his small sample size with the Giants, but also his 66 games (207 PA) with the Mets:

[Davis] ranks 16th in baseball (7th in the NL) in barrels per plate appearance percentage, at 9.1% — [tied with] Bryce Harper. In just pure hard hit rate, he’s #1 in the National League at 57.3% and third in MLB, behind Aaron Judge (62.1%) and Yordan Alvarez (60%).

He also doesn’t need to be platooned. For his career, he’s hit .271/.351/.441 against righties and .263/.354/.445 against lefties. This year, it’s .262/.346/.433 and .253/.350/.429. He has two more years of team control, which might wind up amounting to ~$20 million. So, he’s affordable, hits for power, doesn’t need to be platooned, and has some positional flexibility, playing first, third, and left field. All of that suggests he’s a guy the Giants should keep.

Now, the positional flexibility bit was some wishcasting on my part. By all measures, J.D. Davis is not the kind of major leaguer you want out there doing things like fielding balls in play. Even at first base! That’s how not average he is in the field. He also strikes out quite a lot — basically 33% of the time over the past two seasons; but, he can do something consistently that not many Giants hitters can: hit the heck out of a baseball.

My September post considered that his ultimate utility for the Giants might be as a trade piece, exactly because he hits the ball hard and has no platoon issues. Brady wrote about the logjam of right-handed infielders just a couple of days ago Wilmer Flores, David Villar, Thairo Estrada, and Mitch Haniger will all need playing time, and only Villar has a minor league option left. But Villar also has the positional flexibility that Davis lacks, even if Villar’s defense might ultimately be average at best. Davis has the track record against major league pitching, and that’s why I’d say his value as a trade chip is a bit greater than Villar’s.

Could he be a part of a trade that helps the Giants get younger and more athletic? Hitting the ball hard and no platoon issues are two great points in his favor for an acquiring team. I don’t see getting traded from the Mets as being a sign that the industry is down on him, either. I think they’d see exactly what we saw by the end of the season coupled with what the Giants saw in his potential when they acquired him. And if the Giants simply hold on to him, he could very well be their home run leader by season’s end.

Depressing thought? Maybe. But the Giants don’t have an obvious middle of the order right now. It could be some variation of Conforto-Haniger-Pederson, but it’s not reasonable to bank on the durability of two-thirds of that trio. And that’s where David Villar figures in. I think it’s worth reading into his 47 minor league home runs over the past two seasons and thinking the Giants really have something here.

Villar’s success doesn’t look like a fluke to me. Those 47 home runs come with a .275 / .388 / .555 line in 812 plate appearances. He carried that over to a .231 / .332 / .455 line in 181 major league plate appearances. I’ll grant you that he had a rough spell and needed some veteran counsel from Evan Longoria at some point, but don’t most prospects on their way to becoming major leaguers?

FanGraphs’ Steamer projections value Davis and Villar similarly and not in a way that makes it seem like they will be key figures — .325 wOBA for both, with Villar ahead in fWAR and home runs: 1.5 to 1.1 and 13 to 11, respectively. I’m not smart enough to refute projections, I can only go off of what I’ve seen after four years of the Zaidi era, and that’s how they’ve been able to determine a usage model that maximizes player skills. Most of these skills are reflected in public-facing stats, but not all of them.

None of this is to say that Davis and Villar will wind up being better than Conforto, Haniger, and Joc Pederson, only that the Giants — absent any other moves — still need some thump in the lineup. They need hitters who hit the ball hard enough to be a threat more often than not. The new rules might change a bit of this to help out the contact but no pop-type players, but conventional wisdom is that hard hits are still best. Davis and Villar hit the ball hard and give the Giants that needed thump.

For this next part of the analysis, I’ve decided to focus on home runs.

A fun thing to do is look at the top 15 hitters (by games played) in 2021 and 2022. The top 15 in 2021 were led in home runs by Brandon Belt with 29. You go down the list and it averages out to 14.67 home runs per player, with the team averaging 4.96 runs per game. In 2022, the Giants’ top 15, led by Joc Pederson’s 23 home runs, averaged 10.6 home runs and as mentioned up top, the team in total averaged 4.42 runs per game. That’s a big dropoff that could be explained in a lot of ways, the simplest being that the Giants just didn’t have as many players hitting the ball hard in 2022 as they did in 2021.

Then I looked at the Steamer projections for what looks like the top 15 position players — again, based on projection. I determined those players to be Michael Conforto, Brandon Crawford, Mitch Haniger, Mike Yastrzemski, Joc Pederson, Thairo Estrada, Isan Diaz, Wilmer Flores, David Villar, J.D. Davis, LaMonte Wade Jr., Blake Sabol, Luis Gonzalez, Joey Bart, and Austin Wynns. Using the Steamer numbers, that group averages out to 13.8 home runs.

For Villar and Davis’ sake, they hit 9 and 8 for the Giants in 2022, respectively, so their 2023 projections are modest enough while having the effect of increasing the Giants’ on-paper power potential a great deal. Home runs aren’t everything — they’re both projected to post 111 wRC+ — but as a simple analysis of their measured skills in relation to the Giants’ lineup and comparing those lineups to their last successful season, it makes it clear that these two guys have factored into the team’s 2023 plans.

And for your sake, I hope you read all of this as positive news. If you aren’t sure if these players are “good,” I’m here to tell you that they are. J.D. Davis is not Darin Ruf. David Villar is not Kevin Padlo. They have flaws and they’re not superstars, but they are at least 10% better than the league average. The Giants have a homegrown position player and trade acquisition poised to help them in 2023.