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No longer the future, Matt Davidson is finally present

Former top prospect fights way out of abyss and earns promotion to White Sox 2½ seasons after highly touted trade

Two years later than everybody thought, and under vastly different pretenses, Matt Davidson is here. The White Sox called him up this morning after optioning Matt Purke to Charlotte Wednesday night.

It’s been a long road for Davidson, who spent the previous two seasons being Just The Saddest, more or less. The White Sox prepared third base for him after acquiring him for Addison Reed, and when he didn’t get the job out of spring training in 2014, service time appeared to be a driving factor.

Davidson then spent the next two years giving the Sox ample baseball reasons to keep him in Triple-A. He batted .200 with a strikeout rate over 30 percent for the Knights, and didn’t even have the occasional hot month to provide hope, either. He always had physical reasons to suppress excitement -- a lot of swing-and-miss, and he wasn’t a Gold Glove candidate — but now he had to fight a two-front war with his head, too.

Davidson ran the risk of a three-peat when the year started the same as his first. He posted compelling spring training numbers, but the Sox had reasons to start him in Triple-A and cross their fingers that it didn’t trigger trauma. The Sox had moved on by trading for Todd Frazier, so Davidson had to get in line for a bench role.

After a touch-and-go April, Davidson finally looks like a normal, respectable Triple-A player for the White Sox:

2014 130 539 .199/.283/.362 9.1 30.4
2015 141 602 .203/.293/.375 10.3 31.7
2016 75 326 .268/.349/.444 9.8 26.4

Those numbers still aren’t awe-inspiring, especially the strikeout rate. But they have improved to something tenable, especially since the worst of it happened early. Davidson’s first month looked an awful lot like a relapse, but he found a way out this time:

  • April: .214/.320/.381, 32.9 percent strikeout rate over 97 PA
  • Since: .290/.361/.470, 23.6 percent strikeout rate over 229 PA

Other splits are less encouraging for his overall profile, in that they’re home-heavy (OPS 140 points higher) and lefty-heavy (180 points higher). This time, though, the latter stands the best chance at helping the 2016 Sox. He’s hitting .312/.393/.532 against Triple-A lefties this year, while the Sox have struggled against southpaws this season.

The Sox have drilled down far enough into the Charlotte roster that it’s 31 flavors of replacement level. Jason Coats is already serving as an example that an excellent overall performance at Charlotte doesn’t automatically translate, and the multi-positional guys (Leury Garcia, Jason Bourgeois) don’t do anything well enough to demand playing time for any specific reason.

In this case, specialization favors Davidson. The Sox could use a lefty-masher, because the Sox have lagged in this regard. It’s not so much that they’re 12th in the league against left-handed pitching, because they are not far off the league average and they don’t face a whole lot of left-handed starters (their pitching staff has most of them).

It’s more that the White Sox are dead last in production against left-handed pitching from their right-handed hitters.

  • White Sox: .237/.308/.396
  • Rest of AL: .270/.335/.447

This is compounded by the absence of Melky Cabrera, who is expected to miss at least a couple more games with a sprained wrist. He’s by far the most effective right-handed hitter against lefties. Otherwise, Brett Lawrie is the only righty with strong traditional splits this year, and everybody else is scuffling one way or another. Frazier is a good example -- his OBP (.314) and power (.524) are fine, but his average is somehow worse (.167). Everybody else is more backwards. Even Tim Anderson is 1-for-10 with four strikeouts against lefties.

Some of this is probably temporary — Tyler Saladino and Avisail Garcia shouldn’t have sub-.600 OPSes according to their histories — but in the interim, it makes it difficult to shape effective lineups. It’d be even worse if Adam Eaton didn’t have his own reverse splits, as he’s hitting .342/.422/.438 against lefties this year.

It’s also less important after today. Davidson has an obvious use against Minnesota lefty Tommy Milone, but the White Sox will be facing all righties in Houston, and that’s when Davidson has fewer natural uses. He might be a decent pinch-hitting candidate for the catcher and non-Eaton corner outfielder, but that’s about it.

I wouldn’t be opposed to him getting a start or two against righties in order to gauge him, and there are a few different permutations to make it happen:

Normal Frazier Abreu Outfielder Davidson
Abreu rest 1 Frazier Davidson Outfielder Abreu
Abreu rest 2 Davidson Frazier Outfielder Abreu
Go for broke Saladino Davidson Frazier Abreu

A few notes about this:

*Frazier has played left field in 178 minor-league games and 13 MLB games, including nine starts (and one start in right field). There’s not much recent experience, though, as he last played there in a partial game in 2013.

*Davidson has played 75 minor-league games at first base. He may not be a better defender than a healthy Abreu, but he might look better than the banged-up Abreu we often see.

*Saladino was tried as an outfielder in 2014, but only played eight games in left field before blowing out his elbow on a throw home. He underwent Tommy John surgery, but at least the ligament died a hero, as he recorded the assist.

We may be overthinking this if Cabrera comes back after minimal missed time. However, if the wrist issues linger and Robin Ventura has seen enough of outfields involving two of the Garcia-Coats-J.B. Shuck troika, then an unorthodox left fielder may be worth auditioning, even with the increased injury risk of playing somebody out of position, as Saladino can attest.

We may also be overthinking it if Davidson goes 0-for-9 with eight strikeouts. Either way, it’ll be nice to have MLB plate appearances associated with Davidson’s name. Reed pitched poorly enough with the Diamondbacks to make his loss no big deal, but Davidson’s inability to survive the International League was yet another black mark on the White Sox’ ability to identify or sustain talent. This promotion -- a deserving one -- spares them the greatest embarrassment. Davidson, who seems a lot older than 25, finally gets a do-over.