On a purely objective level, Eric Davis had a solid major league career. He played parts of the 17 seasons in the majors, hit 282 homers, and collected 1,430 hits. Davis received MVP votes, made All-Star appearances, and earned three Gold Glove awards. Of a group of three childhood friends consisting of Davis, Darryl Strawberry, and Chris Brown, he’s the one who came out of baseball seemingly the least affected by personal setbacks and tragedy. Davis is still involved in Major League Baseball and has worked with underprivileged kids, something he knows about having grown up in South Central Los Angeles.
But as accomplished a player as Davis was, he was capable of being more. Like another All-Universe athlete from the 1980s who made the majors, Bo Jackson, baseball wasn’t Davis’s best sport in his youth. At John C. Fremont High School, he was considered a basketball player before a baseball player, but at the time, baseball had the quickest path to playing professionally. While the NBA’s policy disallowing anyone to play in the league within four years of high school was struck down by the US Supreme Court, no high schoolers made the NBA between Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby in 1975 and Shawn Kemp in 1989.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, what kept Davis from approaching a Cooperstown career wasn’t personal or legal troubles or a lack of talent; it was a flurry of injuries. From a knee injury suffered as a rookie while sliding to the torn rotator cuff with the Cardinals, Davis was a veritable encyclopedia of maladies. (For a comprehensive listing of his dings and scrapes – and for a great look back on Davis’ career – be sure to check out Norm King’s SABR Bio of Davis.) Some of them were of the ordinary variety, such as an assortment of leg injuries that cut short almost every one of his age 24-28 peak seasons, a broken collarbone diving in the outfield, and multiple shoulder ailments.
Others were less typical, as when Davis lacerated his kidney and ended up in intensive care and endured a month-long hospital stay. Spinal problems, which ruined his 1994 long before the strike ended the season, initially led Davis to announce his retirement at age 32. Just a year after his extremely successful 1996 comeback with the Cincinnati Reds (.287/.394/.523, 26 homers, 3.4 WAR in 129 games), he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Davis spent the second half of the 1997 season recovering from having a portion of his colon, along with a tumor the size of a baseball, removed but still returned to the Baltimore Orioles and hit .327/.388/.592 in his last real full season in the majors. By this point, he was a part-time right fielder/designated hitter, with his days in center field wisely consigned to the past.
What’s perhaps most amazing about Eric the Red (his friends called him E), is just how well he played despite the injuries. Only his brief 1994 season and his last hurrah as a pinch-hitter/spare outfielder with the Giants saw him not be a legitimate offensive contributor. Playing through those late 80s leg injuries, which saw him unfairly designated in some circles as a malingerer (there was no doubt a racial component to that criticism as well), Davis hit 124 homers and put up a wRC+ of 148 and 19.2 WAR from 1986-1989.
(This is a good opportunity to remind you all that you can now aggregate season stats on FanGraphs player pages by holding the shift button and clicking the season rows!)
In the end, whether in the majors or minors, Davis never played 140 games in a season. Even the notoriously injury-prone Troy Tulowitzki managed to do that four times!
So, what could’ve been? To find out, I consulted the ZiPS projection system, using the 1989 season as the final jumping-off point for some projections, as was the point when the leg injuries were starting to show up in Davis’ quickness. To try to emulate what a healthier Davis could have done, I also gave him 10% more playing time from 1986-1989 to reflect an alternate timeline in which he stayed essentially healthy. While those injuries could have kept his already potent numbers from being even better, I left his performance qualitatively at the same levels:
ZiPS Time Warp – Eric Davis
ZiPS doesn’t assume that Davis would have been a paragon of perfect health for the rest of his career and still projects him to slowly miss time with injuries. The big difference, of course, is that ZiPS is predicting a more typical aging/injury curve for Davis, one that gives him 20 more wins, sees him eclipse the 400 homer/400 stolen base lines, and has him enjoy two or possibly three more realistic runs at a second 40/40 season (this scenario has him beating Jose Canseco to the first one ever in 1987).
Would Davis have made the Hall with these numbers? Possibly. 51.7 WAR is a bit on the light side, but he’d still eclipse 400 homers and his reputation in his prime as one of the game’s most transcendent stars would have helped him. It’s also possible he would have fallen off the ballot, akin to Jimmy Wynn. JAWS would not be a help here — he’d be down in the mid-20s, around Fred Lynn and Dale Murphy (the latter’s not a bad comp in what Davis’ Hall of Fame consideration would be in this case).
Then again, ZiPS is predicting a fairly average amount of aging from Davis. Given how well his bat held up through all of the actual injuries, perhaps a healthier Davis would have improved on these numbers even more?
We got a lot of Eric Davis, but it still wasn’t enough Eric Davis. Davis is also not the only Red from the 1980s to have his career affected significantly by a rash of injuries, but Jose Rijo, Barry Larkin, Kal Daniels, and Danny Jackson will have to wait until we do the time warp again.