How strong does a person have to be to hit 38 home runs in a season, while playing most of the year with a dislocated thumb in the top hand on his bat? As strong as Chris Davis, who performed that very feat during the 2016 season. Davis revealed the nature of the injury for the first time in his media availability during Saturday’s Orioles FanFest.
That Davis was hurt is not news on its own. A mystery hand injury was alluded to vaguely and repeatedly by the cadre of Orioles beat writers over the course of the 2016 season. Davis started 157 games despite the dislocated thumb.
Although Davis did crush the 38 home runs, the effect of his injury on his overall hitting can be seen quite clearly in the .221/.332/.459 batting line he posted for the season. Thanks to his walk rate and power, Davis salvaged the season from disaster, but it’s safe to say that a .221 average and a career-high 219 strikeouts is not what the Orioles were hoping for in the first season of Davis’ seven-year contract.
Davis on the injury and its aftermath in his own words:
Just a dislocation early in the season. A lot of that was my doing. I knew that it wasn’t right, I knew that it wasn’t 100 percent, but I didn’t want to just sit around and hang out. ... And I honestly thought it was something I could get through and just kind of battle through. ... I really didn’t realize how much of an impact it was having on my swing until I took some cuts this offseason. It’s nice to have two hands to hit with again.
This is simultaneously quite exciting and also frustrating. That things were not right with Davis was painfully obvious to anyone who was paying attention to his swings in the second half of the season. Might the Orioles have been better off if he had gone on the disabled list? There’s no point in getting worked up about it now.
What’s exciting about it is readily apparent. Even despite his struggles, Davis hit the 38 home runs. Now that he says he’s healed, perhaps he’s coming to reclaim the home run crown that he’s held for the past two odd-numbered years.
Hold on, though. Is it so easy to point to the injury as the cause of all of his 2016 struggles? Well, yes, it’s easy to say that, but that doesn’t make it automatically true.
Take a look at Davis’ month-by-month batting splits from Baseball Reference, keeping in mind his claim that the dislocation happened “early in the season”:
- April: .235/.356/.506
- May: .210/.313/.380
- June: .284/.388/.632
- July: .153/.273/.271
- August: .214/.342/.541
- Sept/Oct: .223/.316/.417
Adam Jones, brushing off his own mystery injury from early last season that led to struggles as he played through it, famously said, “Sometimes you suck.”
That’s certainly true at times, but there’s slumping and there’s a prodigious power hitter like Davis getting four extra base hits in an entire month, as happened in July. Two of those were home runs in back-to-back games the first two days of the month.
We might suppose from the available information that Davis suffered the injury on July 2 or July 3, after which he batted only .194 for the remainder of the season - though he still hit 17 homers from then on.
I would not personally count early July as “early in the season,” but perhaps Davis does. Though May - a month with only three homers - also looks like a genuine injury-affected month rather than a “sometimes you suck” month, the June surge means it’s not so easy to say, “Well, he got hurt early and that’s why he was bad.”
Maybe the cumulative effects of the injury became worse over time without allowing it time to recover. It’s a reasonable-sounding explanation, anyway.
Another thing to keep in mind before completely jumping on the hype train is that baseball players are an optimistic bunch, or at least they are when it comes to media sound bytes. There’s a reason why “best shape of my life” is a running joke each year when spring training rolls around. Everybody says stuff like that. It doesn’t mean they’re all about to have a career year.
I learned this lesson for myself in the 2012 season. At that January’s FanFest, I had the chance to talk to Jake Arrieta for a little while. He had some bone chips removed from his elbow towards the end of the previous season. Arrieta sounded like a guy destined for immediate greatness.
Arrieta did get there, though it took two years and a trade to the Cubs for that to happen. You can’t always trust the player to know.
On the other hand, sometimes you can trust the player. For that, we need look no farther than Davis himself two years ago. Davis was coming off a 2014 season in which he struggled a lot, in part due to, he said at the time, an oblique injury that didn’t heal fully even after he spent 15 days on the disabled list.
As Davis started his comeback for 2015, talk about the oblique was overshadowed by talk about Davis coming back from his suspension for a banned stimulant. Yet Davis himself sounded optimistic about being in good health again and was looking for the season.
I was skeptical. Could the oblique have been such a big part of the struggle for him? If it was that bad, why didn’t the Orioles just put him back on the disabled list?
There’s still not an answer to that second question. Sometimes players just play through injuries even when they shouldn’t. Davis clearly just did it again - and so did Jones - in the 2016 season for the O’s. But the first question was answered persuasively by Davis crushing 47 home runs with a .923 OPS in the 2015 season. He was back, as he promised he would be.
Here we are two years later. Davis is coming off of another injury-impacted down season. He says he’s back. Let’s hope he’s as right as he was two years ago and on track to pick up another home run crown. I’m not going to bet against him this time.