It’s hard to necessarily label the first year of Chris Davis’ franchise breaking free-agent contract a bust, or to say that the impending years are trending towards such, but there’s no iniquity in saying Orioles fans should have expected a little more. Well, who knows, because Chris Davis is kind of a strange case.
A year after posting baseball’s 19th-lowest Zone% of 41.3%, or pitches seen inside the strike zone, that number has somehow managed to shrink to 40.7%, the 10th-lowest mark among all qualified hitters. With a furthered understanding of how he intends to be pitched, Davis has actually been markedly better in recognizing his hulking figure is very much intimidating. And we have numbers to prove it! Davis’s chase rate has lowered to a career-low 27.1%, and by swinging at better pitches, his whiff rate has also lowered to—you knew it was coming—a career low 14.9%. Some Newton guy said that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so of course Davis’s walk rate (13.7%) is a current career high.
“But they don’t pay him all of our money to walk! They pay him to hit home runs and get RBIs!”-Lots of people, probably.
Sure, my Facebook friends, you aren’t wrong. Entering August, Davis was hitting .220/.332/.447, while his 21 home runs did all they could to muster up a barely league-average 106 wRC+. Aided, or unaided maybe, by a .153/.273/.271 July in which he only had three home runs in 99 plate appearances, Davis was looking like the exact definition of a clunker, or “a thing that is totally unsuccessful.” If you Google “what does a 49 wRC+ look like?”, that’s what it says.
In a drastic turn of events however, this hunk of scrap metal found life with a brand new engine. Chris has turned into Christine, once again a frightening 1958 Plymouth Fury whose sole purpose is murdering baseballs.
Though his August .236/.360/.583 slash won’t trick you into thinking anything revolutionary is happening, something kind of is. Growing accustomed to an offering of stuff out of the zone, and having adapted a more patient approach, Davis had been doing a lot less swinging overall.
Yeah sure, he’s swinging less, much of which goes to not seeing a lot of good pitches to hit, but even as his overall swing rate has dwindled, it’s affected his looks inside the strike zone. Coming into this season with a career zone-swing rate of 73.3%, Davis has been much more submissive within the boundaries of the plate, where that number has dropped to 63.7%. We’re talking about a Markakian level of strike zone indifference without the same ability to extend at-bats out of the zone. It’s a pretty significant drop-off for someone whose most important skill is detriment on him swinging at pitches where his bat is most potent.
And that makes you wonder, has that changed? How does a guy hit five home runs in four games, or even eight in his last 86 plate appearances? Well, nothing’s changed in terms of his taking his hacks.
For the most part, his swings still parallel his strikeouts, but Davis’ seen a massive hike in fly balls becoming home runs. I’m sure I’m not alone in welcoming his tried and true advancements in expanding his offensive game, but Crush ain’t crushin’ if his bat isn’t moving off his shoulders.
Prior to August, Davis’ aggressively passive lack of attempts in the middle of zone drew unfavorably in comparison to his swings a season ago. Granted, baseball is made up of the 99-percenters who can pile-drive pitches middle-middle, but Davis wasn’t a “what-if” in 2015, but rather a “when”. Crush had left far too many question marks where his slugging prowess leaves little doubt as to the end of the equation.
Look at those hacks, man. And guess what? He ain’t missing ‘em either.
One of the main things you’ll often hear is “hit the ball where it’s pitched”, which is essentially a quick-hitter for taking the ball to the opposite field. That’s great, and probably the best off-hand example is Hyun Soo Kim, who is probably the Orioles most adept hitter at simply flicking the wrists and slapping the baseball to left field. Again, that’s a great mindset to have and willingness to adjust, but Davis is at his best when he’s launching right field mortar shots into the Camden Yard crazies.
Davis is a pull guy, always was and always will be, and as he’s singled out pitches in his happy-zone, he’s regained the part of his game that makes him what he is. August Fagerstom of Fangraphs’ wrote the other day in regards to Davis’ massive shift decrease from 2015 to 2016, where Davis’ pull tendencies have seen the greatest negative shift (-12.7%) from any player in baseball within the past calendar year. Fagerstrom noted how Davis’ fly balls to right field have steadily declined in their rate of turning into home runs. As well, he noted how Davis’ raw power and inability to pull the baseball with more efficiency may indicate a slipping in his most resourceful tool.
Crush’s correlation with going the other way and his downslope in power definitely makes sense. It can indicate many things, including a decrease in bat speed, or as August put, this lack of power can force an overcompensation in trying to be something you no longer are.
I don’t think this is Davis however, at least not yet. Davis’ issue may not be so complicated.
Davis’ swing is a natural coefficient to strikeouts. The plane in which he swings and his goal in mind will always give way to swings and misses. It is what it is. But a Davis more willing to take walks, more conscious of his perimeter at the plate will continue to give way to opportunities such as this one. It’s a matter of Davis doing what he does best.
Swinging like hell.