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Chris Davis struggled in 2014; can the Orioles' home run king get his swing back?

After setting a franchise home run record and pacing MLB in 2013, Chris Davis came back to earth -- hard -- in his follow-up campaign with the Orioles in 2014.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

After an up-and-down career characterized by tons of raw power and an inability to get on base consistently, Chris Davis broke out in a big way in 2013.  He led MLB in home runs, while setting the Orioles single-season franchise record in the category.  He got his first All-Star appearance, first Silver Slugger award, and finished third in AL MVP balloting.  Then came 2014.  Any prognosticator could've told you that Davis would come back to earth a bit in his follow-up campaign, but few would've predicted the severity of the crash:

PA BA/OBP/SLG H XBH HR
2013 Davis 673 .286/.370/.634 167 96 53
2014 Davis 525 .196/.300/.404 88 42 26

As those stat lines betray, basically nothing went right for Davis in 2014.  Some of the ins and outs of what went wrong:

  • The nice, flat swing that gave Davis power to all fields in 2013 vanished, dually sapping his overall home run power and his ability to thwart the defensive shifts that were frequently deployed against him.  With occasional exceptions, Davis looked more like his pre-2013 self at the plate, uppercutting his swings, hitting into a dead pull and swinging and missing a lot more (his contact percentage on swings dropped to 66%, his lowest since 2009).
  • Davis went on the disabled list in late April for an oblique strain.  It was widely theorized that the injury may have nagged Davis throughout the season; oblique strains notoriously don't heal with anything but extensive rest.  Fans will probably never know to what extent this was true, but it's certainly not implausible, at least as a contributing factor.
  • The cherry on top of the dog-doo sundae that was Davis's 2014 was a season-ending suspension for taking Adderal without a Therapeutic Use Exemption from MLB, a boneheaded move that knocked Davis off the roster for the team's stretch run and the entirety of the playoffs (and, with the Orioles' elimination, will also be in effect on Opening Day 2015).
  • For all of Davis's offensive struggles, he took just enough walks and hit just enough dingers to finish as basically a league-average hitter (98 OPS+) -- not what you want from a $10.3M first baseman, but not bad enough to cut or bench.  What kept Davis at a relatively acceptable value for the team was his defense, which seems like a strange thing to say about Chris Davis.  Davis really hit a groove in almost 1000 innings at first base, committing just four errors, with advanced defensive stats liking him as well (+8 DRS / 3.6 UZR/150).  When he covered third base for the injured Manny Machado, the stats didn't agree as cleanly, but he nonetheless put up positive WAR no matter which system you use (1.8 bWAR / 0.5 fWAR), largely due to his defensive contributions.

Anyone who tells you that they know what to expect from Davis in 2015 is a liar, a fool, or both.  Between 2013 and 2014, no one knows which represents the real Davis right now.  Is 2013 Davis real, dragged down in 2014 by nagging injuries and maybe dependence on Adderal?  Or is 2014 Davis the proof that 2013 was nothing but a fluke?  Some fans want Davis cut in the offseason, which would be foolish; the possibility of a trade exists, but that would be the definition of selling low.  More than likely, the team will go to Game 2 of 2015 with Davis as their very pricey first baseman, following an inevitable (if modest) raise in his final year of arbitration. Orioles fans will have to hope that the real Davis is at least halfway between his 2013 and 2014 performances.