Chris Davis is quite the enigma.
Week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year, Davis has mastered the art of equally dumbfounding the masses while ritually cementing himself as one of baseball’s most compelling home run artists. His palette, comprised of cowboy muscles, Redman, moonshots and crash landings, makes for a picture, though abstract, fairly easy to understand.
In 2016 however, Davis has spent most of his time behind the canvas strapped down by artist’s block.
Despite a stellar June, Davis’ first year in his 7-year/$161M contract has been some-boom, mostly-bust. His 22 home runs and career-high 13.7 BB% haven’t done much to loft attention away from his current .223/.338/.461 slash, and in recent weeks, his offensive absence has been growing much more difficult not to notice. In July alone, Davis only has 11 hits in 86 plate appearances, including three home runs and one double. The obvious constraint around Davis is his current 1-27 streak, and though his bunt single in the 1st inning last night interrupted his 22 at-bat hitless streak, he still struck out twice in two of his final three at-bats.
There are periods of time when Davis looks as lost and longing for normal as Elle from Stranger Things, but he eventually strings off days of brilliance long enough to distract us from the swings and misses. The thing is, this most recent drying of the ink looks different.
Is he being pitched out of the ordinary? Stuff wise, no.
While he is seeing just a slight downtick in fastballs, causing a baby bump in off-speed pitches and breaking balls, Davis isn’t seeing a remarkable difference in terms of pure offerings. Though, between 2015 and 2016, we have seen a shift in WHERE Davis is being pitched, most notably with the fastball.
Though still being worked away, Davis is seeing a tremendous shift in fastball usage towards his hands and his belt. It makes sense, of course. One of the upsides of the uppercut swing is the awe-inspiring lift of the baseball that it creates, but as quick as it rewards, it takes a long time for the bat head to get where it needs to be. There’s a reason that Davis’ career .611 ISO middle-away is where his power has seen its greatest triumph. Davis’ swing is far from traditional, because the uppercut forces the hands farther away from his torso, in turn, he more or less hooks the baseball rather than swinging through it.
While such a swing creates upward force, it exposes Davis to the treachery of the fastball high, inside, or both. Manny Machado for example, is able to hit the baseball in the four quadrants of the strike zone because his swing path manages to stay so smooth in nearly every scenario. One reason why Machado is widely considered one of the game’s best high-ball hitters is because in order to get on top of the high fastball, one must swing on a balanced plane, as he so affably does.
That is not Davis, nor will that ever be Davis, but that doesn’t mean he can’t, or won’t, still be an offensive juggernaut. Though the fastball, typically Davis’ pick of the litter, has him at a stalemate. Said problems are especially an issue when down in the count.
In June, when Davis slashed .284/.388/.632 with a 161 wRC+, pitchers used a more variable fastball approach with two strikes, though to his benefit, he either prolonged at-bats or put the ball in play. In July however, Davis is being scorched up and in with the fastball, especially on the defensive.
As opposing pitchers routinely find success up in the zone with the fastball, Davis has continued to chase, and failed to make contact. It’s no mystery that he has holes up and in, and perhaps we’re seeing a lump of data being sourced over the course of July, but it probably isn’t as difficult as Davis being attacked in an area he has yet to prove he can defend.
Davis has seen a five percent rise in his fastball whiff rate (16.4%) compared to April through June (11.4%) as well as a nearly three percent drop in the frequency fastballs are being put in play (12.2% to 9.7%) over the the same timeframe. That again, has to do with Davis seeing five percent more fastballs called strikes in July (32.8%) than the previous three months (27.2%). Strangely enough, Davis has actually done a much better job taking opposing off-speed pitches, and he’s seeing nearly the same rate of breaking balls. If he’s seeing more fastballs and taking pitcher’s pitches, shouldn’t his numbers be trending up, not down?
Maybe there’s a sequencing change, an expanded strike zone, or a mysterious mechanical/timing issue to blame, but Davis’ ailments can only be defaulted by recreating scenarios beneficial to his swing path. That means taking or fouling off pitches with the possibility of a mistake closing in on the horizon. Chasing fastballs that either result in whiffs or pop ups mascot the Orioles offense at it’s worst.
And with the way Crush has hit over the course of this month, he may as well be suited up as the Oriole Bird.