orioles-slugger-chris-davis-is-on-pace-to-become-the-new-home-run-king articlefeature--baltimore-orioles

Expectations For Chris Davis?

Chris Davis isn’t exactly the straw that stirs the Baltimore Orioles’ drink. Historically speaking, whether he has a great season has had little effect on how the Orioles have performed as a team.

Case in point: Last season, when Davis had arguably the worst campaign of his career with an OPS+ of 95, the Orioles had a team OPS+ of 99 and scored 743 runs. In 2015, when Davis had a whopping OPS+ of 147, the Orioles’ team OPS+ was 97 and produced just 713 runs.

Blame Davis’ falloff, if you wish, as a factor in the O’s steep decline in victories. You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Just don’t throw too much blame his direction. He is not, after all, a pitcher.

(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)

That being said, Davis has been wildly inconsistent throughout his career, as you can see by looking at his wRC+ each season since cracking Baltimore’s big-league lineup in 2012: 121, 168, 94, 149, 112, 92.

You have to wonder just how good a deeper and more balanced O’s offense would be if Davis’ pendulum swung back in the positive direction in 2018. Not that he has to hit 47 homers like he did in 2015. But what if he hit 35 homers or so and cut his strikeout rate from a career-worst 37.2 percent in 2017 to a more manageable 31-32 percent? Would that be enough to help offset the expected lack of pitching and get the Birds back into contention? Is Davis, who turns 32 in March, even capable of turning things around at this point in his career?

To attempt to answer these questions, let’s look at what went wrong in 2017.

First of all, the injury bug bit Davis in June, when he went down with an oblique injury and missed a month of the season. Davis had a .781 OPS at the time of the injury. By the end of the season, his OPS stood at .732, so it seems logical that he never fully recovered from the injury physically. It also may have affected him mentally.

Hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh sort of addressed this late last month when he told Jon Meoli of the Sun: “Is that a mental thing? Is that a physical thing? We’ve talked about that.”

Coolbaugh said that Davis is working very hard this offseason and has been receptive to efforts to revitalize his swing. In addition to simply being healthy, Coolbaugh wants Davis to focus on beating the defensive shifts he has increasingly faced by going the other way.

“We’ve talked about the shift, the ground balls to the right side, of trying to hit through the shift instead of trying to take advantage and use the other side of the field. That’s when he’s really good, when he’s driving the ball the other way.”

That’s pretty standard coach speak and not terribly revealing. You’ll never hear one say “I wish he would roll more grounders to the second baseman.” But it also really misses the point when you consider that Davis’ biggest asset is that when he hits the ball in the air, it tends to leave the ballpark. As long as he hits the ball in the air, it won’t matter if the opposing team plays with 14 infielders. Shift all you want, you’re not going to beat the home run with your infield defense. So the focus shouldn’t be so much on going the other way, but on hitting the ball in the air. And with Davis’ power it doesn’t matter which direction he hits it.

The numbers on Fangraphs pretty much bear that out, and contradict Coolbaugh. In 2015, Davis pulled the ball 55.9 percent of the time at a hard hit rate of 41.4 percent. Last season, Davis pulled the ball much less (44.2 percent), while his hard hit rate was almost identical, 41.5 percent.

When it comes to fly balls, though, he hit fewer of them (39.8 percent vs. 43.5 percent) and his HR/FB rate dropped from 29.4 to 24.8). So last season Davis was hitting the ball just as hard as in 2015, but he was spraying it more and hitting more grounders and line drives, and thus, fewer home runs.

This may also be connected to his oblique injury. When Davis went down in June, he had 16 home runs. After returning, he hit only 10 more and his slugging percentage dropped from .461 to .423.

Looking at Brooks Baseball, you can also see that his fly ball rate dropped precipitously around the time he was hurt, especially against offspeed pitches. And while pitchers attacked him in more or less the same manner (55-57 percent fastballs, 43-45 offspeed/breaking pitches), Davis pretty much stopped swinging at everything for a solid month.

Davis ended up striking out 195 times last season for a career-worst rate of 37.2 percent, but the most frustrating thing was that 38.5 percent of those strikeouts came looking. Indeed, Davis led the majors with 75 called third strikes, more than half of which (50.7 percent) came on fastballs.

What does it all mean? Why did Davis lose his aggression? Was it a product of his oblique injury? Did the defensive shifts get into his head? Most likely, it was a little bit of both. And when things started sliding downhill, the struggles gained a momentum of their own.

Davis, without blaming his injury, has said as much, and vows to be more aggressive in 2018, especially early in counts. He says he’ll be less picky about what he swings at, and acknowledges that a batter can learn just as much about a pitch by swinging at it as he can by looking at it. He also gave a hint as to where his psyche was at in 2017.

“I really feel like there was a point in the season where I was really trying so hard consciously to go the other way that I was missing pitches on the inner half that I could have done a lot of damage with,” Davis said. “And it’s two-fold. You want to go up there and look for a pitch you can do something with, but at the same time, you don’t want to manipulate your swing to where you’re carving a pitch that’s inside to the left side for a weak ground ball or a pop-up. They say it’s a game of adjustments and that couldn’t be truer as it pertains to me.”

Coolbaugh should not like hearing the words “trying so hard consciously” come out of Davis’ mouth, and he should not like to hear him talk about “carving a pitch.” That sounds like Tony Gwynn talk to me. Chris Davis will never be mistaken for Tony Gwynn and should not try to hit like him.

Things got a little too complicated for Davis in 2017, no doubt amplified by the disruption of his injury. If I’m Coolbaugh, I’m going to work to simplify things for the upcoming season. I’d tell Davis not to worry about carving pitches. I’d tell him not to worry about striking out (swinging). And I’d also tell him not to worry about the shift. Instead, I’d tell him to feel free to go the other way or up the middle that if they pitch him outside, but if they pitch him inside, turn on it and crush it. And as always, I’d tell him to get the ball in the air.

There is a good chance that at soon-to-be 32 years old, Davis does not have another 140-plus wRC+ season in him. But it seems reasonable that the O’s slugger, if he stays healthy, can get into the 110-115 range. He can hit 35 home runs and walk 80 times and produce an .800 OPS.

And think about how much that would benefit an O’s offense that is now so much more than just the Manny Machado show. Now, if only he could pitch.

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Bob Harkins

Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!

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