Chris Davis was once again a bad baseball player for the Orioles during the 2019 season. There was, at least, an unexpected window of about five weeks where he managed to hit at an acceptable level. Those five weeks were fun but ultimately did little to quiet the sense that Davis is washed up and that the only question is when the new Orioles front office will decide that enough is enough and stop giving Davis chances.
Even the one feel-good story that surrounded Davis this season, when he met up with the 9-year-old kid who sent him a nice letter, is inextricably linked to the historic failure that prompted the boy to write Davis a letter: He set a new MLB record with 62 consecutive hitless plate appearances and 54 straight hitless at-bats.
There is not much nice to be said about Davis’s 2019 performance, so before I move on to that, let’s further explore the letter, summarized by the Boston Globe:
In the letter, Frasca reminded the Baltimore Orioles slugger that just because he wasn’t hitting, that didn’t make him a bad person. He then encouraged him by calling him incredible and noting that everyone goes through slumps sometimes.
The made-for-Hollywood aspect of this whole thing is that Davis, the day he received the letter, went 3-5, drove in four runs, and kicked off that five week stretch of solid hitting.
The kid’s simply expressed truth that just because Davis isn’t hitting, that doesn’t make him a bad person, is something that can easily get lost in the shuffle of trying to write about a bad player’s bad performance.
From April 13, when Davis read that letter, until May 17, he played in 25 games. In those games, Davis batted .273/.341/.506. This was interesting in the sense that, if you had asked me nine months ago, I would not have believed that Davis was capable of slugging over .500 over any decent-sized sample of games. Unfortunately, the good feelings didn’t extent too far beyond that, with Davis posting just a .585 OPS the rest of the way.
Even after that stretch, manager Brandon Hyde was realistic whenever assessing Davis’s current ability and assigning playing time as a result. It did not take long to show that those five weeks of play did not mean that Davis had fixed anything for good. He was not “back.”
As a result, Davis was buried on the bench a lot of the time in a way that fans accustomed to Buck Showalter’s treatment of struggling veterans could not have expected. Davis played in just 105 games, with playing time tapering off significantly as the season went along. He only played in nine games in September, with the expanded roster giving the Orioles several other players they wanted to evaluate more than Davis.
For the season, it all added up to a batting line of .179/.276/.326 in 352 plate appearances. The fact that Davis only batted that many times this season is sufficient to refute anyone who might try to argue that the Orioles were doing absolutely everything within their power to tank in 2019. They could have intentionally been worse just by playing Davis more.
You could take out the record 0-for and Davis still only batted .201/.293/.365 for the season. One thing you can say about this batting line beyond just the obvious reaction that it sucks, and that it really, really sucks for a guy who’s in the middle of a $161 million contract, is that it’s a reminder that it is very difficult for pitchers to throw strikes.
Even Davis, who watched a lot of third strikes sail by and swung out of the zone for others as he struck out in a career-worst 39.5% of his plate appearances, managed to walk 11.1% of the time. It’s remarkable. There was never a reason this season for any pitcher to fear what Davis would do if he made contact and put a ball in play. Still, he walked 39 times, including one game during that record hitless streak where, unbelievably, he was intentionally walked.
If Davis was stoically stinking, that would be one thing, but unfortunately for him, his other most memorable incident from the season was the time he ended up in a brief dugout shouting match with Hyde. Both parties seemed to move past it quickly, so perhaps I should too, but for this Orioles fan, that incident added an extra layer of indignity to bear about the season. Watching bad baseball is no fun, but at least I can understand why it’s happening. Watching Davis blow up at the manager for apparently no good reason was just sad.
There is only one burning question for anyone who’s watched Davis for the last two years. When will enough be enough for the team to send him packing? GM Mike Elias already signaled near season’s end that Davis would be with the team in spring training.
One of the stories around the Orioles over the last couple of weeks is that they were giving players specific marching orders for the offseason on what they want each player to work on and try to improve. Presumably, Davis has some of this homework for the winter, and Elias and the rest of the staff will want to see in the spring if it makes any difference at all.
The three years remaining on the contract make for an understandable, though still frustrating, willingness to make sure that the Orioles give Davis a chance to pull himself out of the deep hole he’s in. There was no Elias plan for him to follow last offseason because Elias only got hired around Thanksgiving.
Maybe it will matter and maybe it won’t, but there does seem to be some value to the current regime in knowing they’ve done all they could. If Opening Day rolls around and Davis has showed no improvement during spring training yet still ends up on the roster, I might be more inclined to assume an explanation other than that they’re being thorough.
Another unavoidable fact about Davis is that his presence on the roster had the ripple effect of a fair amount of Trey Mancini, who’s actually a first baseman, playing right field, and Renato Nunez, who maybe should be a designated hitter, playing any defense at all.
Davis probably was not keeping any prospects down in the minor leagues by virtue of his presence. Ryan Mountcastle - also probably a first baseman - has his supporters among O’s fans because he was a holdover guy with hype from the Dan Duquette days and he just posted an .871 OPS at Triple-A at age 22 this season.
Leaving Mountcastle down for a full Norfolk season was justifiable on their part, but if he’s still playing that well in 2020 and Davis is still playing as poorly in 2020, that won’t be much fun for O’s fans who’d like to see the better future steadily making its way to Baltimore.
The 2015 version of Chris Davis will not be reporting to Sarasota in February except for in someone’s wildest dreams. Time will tell if the version of Davis who shows up looks any different. If he’s still playing like he did this season, the Orioles can’t get rid of him soon enough.