There may not have been anyone in professional baseball more eager to see the 2018 season come to a close than Orioles first baseman Chris Davis. Fans booed him, Jim Palmer criticized him, and the media wrote a lot of stories about him. Based on performance alone, Davis deserved much of that negative feedback. It was such a dramatic flop of a season that the Orioles may soon be forced to make a decision on his future with the club.
Among qualified hitters, Davis finished last in MLB in batting average (.168), slugging percentage (.296), strikeout rate (36.8 percent), wOBA (.239), wRC+ (46) and fWAR (-3.1). Given that, it seems fair to say that he was the worst player in the entire league or, at least, the worst player that a team stuck with for an extended period of time.
How often Davis appeared in the lineup —commonly in a prominent position— is part of the reason he received so much fervor. Despite the poor play, Buck Showalter never batted Davis lower than seventh in the order and most often placed him in the fifth hole. Of his 522 plate appearances this season, 300 of them came as the fifth hitter. That’s poor management. That is not putting a team in the best position to succeed. And that is (a small) part of the reason that the Orioles were so awful.
Of course, the organization has their hands tied a bit given Davis’s contract situation. According to Spotrac, he made over $21 million in 2018 and he will do the same in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022. You get the idea. The Orioles have a lot of money invested in Davis. With long term deals like this, the expectation is that the player will decline as they get into their late 30’s, and maybe the team will trade them away or eat the money then. But for Davis to fall apart in his age-32 season has put the club in a premature financial bind.
On the field, the Orioles are ready to move on from Davis. Trey Mancini could succeed with a full time departure from left field, where he struggles defensively. Ryan Mountcastle may ultimately be a better fit at first base than his current position, third base. The big league team is about to be inundated with outfielders from the high minors. Perhaps one of them could get at-bats at first base. Any of these players would likely put up better numbers than Davis did in 2018.
The departure of Showalter means Davis has lost one of his bigger public defenders. Showalter often said that Davis was working hard on fixing whatever it was that ailed him, and he believed that the big bopper would figure it all out. Maybe that is all PR talk, but Showalter had been Davis’s manager for a long time. There’s a friendship there, and you are going to give your friend a longer leash than you will a stranger. A new manager and front office may not be so kind.
At the same time, the Orioles are a bad baseball team. That is unlikely to change in 2019, even if Davis does bounce back to a reasonable level of production. There is little harm in giving him at-bats unless the organization does believe he is blocking an exciting prospect, like Mountcastle. For now, that does not seem to be the case.
Even if the Orioles were willing to eat a significant chunk (nearly all) of Davis’s contract, no other team would be interested in having him on their major league roster right now. He provides no value. Maybe they would offer him a minor league deal, but they aren’t about to trade anything for him. The O’s would have to release him in exchange for the open roster spot and nothing more. At this exact moment, given all of the lows he went through in 2018, that seems pointless.
The current situation is basically the worst case scenario. Davis is the worst player in the league. Sure, he could get worse, but there isn’t much room there. For these Orioles, it would make more sense to hold onto Davis for the time being, see if he has improved in the spring and give him a month or two of regular season games to show if any changes have been made. If he still has a pitcher’s batting line at that point, it would be time to make a decision.
There’s always the chance that he turns it around and becomes at least a replacement level player. It’s certainly not the outcome the franchise had envisioned when handing out that massive contract a few years ago, but it would be an improvement over the black hole he had become over this last summer.
However, the likelihood that Davis does rebound is rather slim. He’s barreling fewer balls than ever before (down to 10.3 percent in 2018) and his average exit velocity has taken a sharp down turn as well (89 mph). This runs contradictory to Davis’s own observation that he was unlucky, hitting balls right at fielders. He did post a career-low .237 BABIP, but he also hit more ground balls than fly balls for the first time since 2012 and produced his lowest hard hit rate (36.2 percent) since 2014.
How can Davis be fixed? Maybe he can’t. But the Orioles need him to play his game. That means hitting home runs and talking walks. Anything else is icing on the cake.
Opposing teams play dramatic shifts against Davis. He needs to hit it over the shift, not try to go the opposite way. Yes, learning how to drop a bunt down a wide open third base line occasionally would be nice, but an added single here and there are not the reason Davis is in the big leagues. He’s there to drive in runs and hit the ball over the fence. When he can’t do that, he’s lost nearly all of his value.
The days of Chris Davis being a potential MVP candidate are over. He’s unlikely to be a 50-homer threat ever again. But the Orioles should be able to get more than 16 dongs and a .296 slugging percentage from the soon-to-be 33-year-old. He deserves another chance to prove he can be better. If he can’t, then it will be time to move on.