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How does Chris Davis turn it around for the Orioles?

Though it goes without saying, the production of Chris Davis will be an important subplot for the Orioles’ 2018 season. Let’s hope he has a clear mind.

Baltimore Orioles v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The other day, I was home sick from work because apparently it was my time to catch whatever is going around.

While I love watching The Office on Netflix for literally hours on end, I needed something to space out Jim’s arduous journey to secure Pam’s heart. So, I did what any Oriole nerd would do, and I watched all of MASN’s Fanfest interviews. All 20 of them, from John Russell to Nestor Cortes. It was glorious.

Caleb Joseph, who is actually hilarious, spoke about how his 2017 season was personally triumphant, as he continued to label his 2016 performance as “historically bad”. He was blunt about it, and his repeated punctuation of how “historically bad” it was to step into the batter’s box 141 times and not somehow drive in a single run was as honest as it was entertaining.

“Historically bad” isn’t how one would describe Chris Davis’ 2017 campaign, but nonetheless, bad is bad.

Oriole fans have been forced to live in the past in order to truly appreciate the best of times, and so too has Davis. It’s crazy to look back and realize Davis posted a 7.0 fWAR season only four years ago. Along the lines of fWAR, Davis owns the 19th best season of total production out of a position player since the 2013 season. Since 2014, Davis has posted a 9.5 fWAR, a mark that spans four seasons and includes his 5.7 fWAR, 47-homer year in 2015.

As far as declinations go, Davis’ was well predicted. Power-hitting first basemen who lack the necessary tools to extend the positive longevity of their careers tend to go south, and go south fast. Davis only managed a 92 wRC+ in 2017, his worst mark as a full-time player. Even worse, Crush’s 37.2 percent strikeout rate was his worst frequency at any level of his professional baseball career. And as we all have seen and heard, way too many of those were looking at a third strike sailing right down the middle.

The Orioles haven’t done much to alleviate the nauseating thoughts of the upcoming season, but a more productive Davis would certainly reduce some concerns. How can he come close to what he once was? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Naturally, the first place anyone wants to look is in his swing to find any missteps. Starting with his stance, there’s nothing to see.

He’s still the same guy here. Slightly open, hands already where they will soon be again. Mike Bordick’s Crusher is still as intimidating as ever in the box. So, we go from the stance to the swing, where we also find...pretty much nothing.

This is Davis in 2013, the year he hit a club record 53 home runs with a 168 wRC+. Despite the little hitch in load, Davis can be seen here clearing his hips, keeping the bat through the zone as long as he can, and extending through the baseball to hit a vintage Davis moonshot. This is what Davis is, and always has been. That same form of attack hasn’t changed, and it didn’t last season either.

Davis’ swing is imperfect, and as a power hitting lefty, that’s just the way the cookie has crumbled. But mechanically, he seems to be swinging on the same plane as he was at his peak. Similar to Davis’ swing, the approach taken by opposing pitchers has also maintained equilibrium.

From left to right, we have the heatmaps of Davis at the plate since 2015. Though Baseball Savant only goes back as far 2015, we can get a pretty good idea of how the other guys have broached the subject of pitching to Davis. The lava-shaded red indicates more volume, which brings us to the most obvious of points.

Davis has progressively swung the bat with less frequency, and the plague of leaving the bat on his shoulders has brought Davis to a serious crossroad. Over the past three years, Davis’ zone-swing rate has fallen from 72.2 percent, to 64.1 percent, to last season’s 60 percent.

The pace at which Davis swung at pitches in the strike zone in 2017 was the 12th-lowest mark among all qualified hitters. Conversely, Davis swung and missed at 14.2 percent of the pitches he saw, the 10th-worst ratio in baseball.

Hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh recently spoke with MASN, talking about Davis’ winter workouts. Here is what the meat of what he said:

“I just think that Chris has gotten in his own way a little bit the last two years,” Coolbaugh said. “I don’t know if it’s been more of a mental thing than a physical thing, but he’s been in a good mindset. He’s been working hard this winter to come back strong in the spring and get ready.”

Mr. Coolbaugh has a point. Davis has dealt with multiple oblique injuries the past few years, as well as a hand injury two years ago. Core and hand injuries are kind of detrimental to a hitter’s success, so there is some blame that can be placed in the physical spectrum. Even so, Davis is an athletic freakazoid. His swing is still intact. He’s middle-aged in baseball terms, but he’s only entering the season at 32.

Mentally? I think that’s where the stem of the problem roots.

It’s a common understanding that when a guy watches a called strike three, it tends to be because he was fooled. Davis struck out 75 times looking at strike three. To put that in perspective, Mookie Betts struck out 79 times all of last season.

As an Oriole, Davis owned a 159 wRC+ against four-seam fastballs prior to last season. In 2017, that figure dropped to 80 wRC+. Never before had Davis struck out at the frequency he did, and a lot of that had to do with his inability to square up a fastball.

Davis had a 43 percent strikeout rate against fastballs a season ago, a career-worst. A hitter’s foundation always starts with the fastball, making his depleting numbers against the heater a worrying sign. But what happens if Davis is able to get his front foot down in time and starts reacting to juicy fastballs, rather than watching ‘em zip by before a lonely walk to the dugout steps?

We really won’t know if a turnaround is possible until Davis gets into the batter’s box again and starts taking hacks. But is the bat speed gone? It doesn’t look like it. He should be fully healthy heading to Sarasota, but is his mind clear? Will he be able to go back to just hitting, and not try to be what he isn’t?

Only time will tell.