You hear it, and at first, it sounds like they’re patronizing Chris Davis.
You hear Mike Bordick or Jim Hunter or anyone else on the Orioles broadcast give the slugger credit for his recent games, and you think it’s an almost insulting case of lowered expectations. After all, you look at the average still well below .200, the slugging percentage below .400, and it’s understood if you roll your eyes.
Is this how far he’s fallen? This man is on his way to being paid $161 million. And we’re celebrating because he’s reached base a few times?
Well, maybe they’re not just patting a struggling player on the back.
Maybe they know good hitting when they see it.
After all, look at Davis’s recent numbers, and you don’t see an average player, or a bad player with a few lucky bloops falling in. You see the stats of a hitter who’s gotten hot - and who might just be earning some of those millions of dollars.
Obviously, the overall statistics remain putrid. Davis entered Monday’s game against the White Sox batting .156 (12 points lower than his historically inept 2018 mark) with a .344 slugging percentage and a .583 OPS. When you hear praise thrown Davis’s way and see those numbers on the screen, it makes sense to be puzzled.
But remember, Davis’s numbers remain saddled by his 0-for-33 start to the season, a slump that by all measures he’s pulled himself out of. That stretch lasted 12 games; since finally breaking through April 13 against the Red Sox, a stretch of 10 games entering Monday, he had batted .323 with three home runs, nine RBI, a .710 slugging percentage and a 1.073 OPS in 34 at-bats. That’s a pace that, stretched over 162 games, equals 48 home runs and 145 RBI.
This isn’t to say that Davis will hit 48 home runs with 145 RBI this season. It’s a small sample size. It’s just to say that, in that small sample size, Davis has hit the ball pretty well.
Better, in fact, than he has in years. To find the last time Davis topped his average, slugging and OPS marks of his recent stretch over a period of at least 30 at-bats, you’d have to go back to May 7-18 of 2017, when he posted the same .323 average with an .871 slugging percentage and 1.347 OPS over 31 official trips to the plate.
At that point, Davis was playing like someone who, while overpaid, wasn’t comically so. When that run ended, he was hitting .267 after 38 games and was on pace for 39 home runs, 73 RBI and a .910 OPS. And then the roof caved in; Davis batted .194 with a .658 OPS the rest of the way, had his miserable 2018, and continued his plunge this season until the swing returned at Fenway.
So could “Crush” be in line for another crash? It’s certainly possible. He’s still striking out a ton, with 11 punchouts in those recent 10 games, and his BABIP in that stretch was .412, implying that he was suddenly getting an abundance of the luck he never, ever seemed to get while hitting one hard grounder or line drive after another into those soul-sucking shifts.
But it can’t be ignored how much more Davis seems to pass the eye test these days. Before, he was a man without a clue. He’d look at fastballs across the heart of the plate, then swing at pitches in the dirt. He’d pull away from pitches low and away, trying half-heartedly to pull them to right. He seemed to be changing his approach from at-bat to at-bat and pitch to pitch, hoping to stumble into something, anything, that worked.
Now, Davis looks like he did before the big payday. He looks confident throughout the count. He works at the plate, fouling off pitches with which he can’t do much to get to the one with which he can. And it’s a better bet than it’s been in years that, if he gets the pitch he wants, he’s going to barrel it up.
Two at-bats demonstrate this newfound rhythm at the plate, and they happened in the Orioles’ most recent games. On Sunday, Kyle Gibson was cruising through the Baltimore lineup when, in the seventh, a breaking ball to Davis strayed a little too high. It was a pitch a big leaguer should always belt, but it’s the sort of pitch that the Davis of the first few games would have watched go by, or topped, or popped up. This time, he hit it a projected 392 feet for a home run.
On Monday, Davis was up in the eighth with runners on first and second, and the Orioles needing a hit down 5-2. He fell into a quick 1-2 hole against Kelvin Herrera, who was hitting 97 on the gun.
Earlier in the month, this would have been a hopeless situation. But Davis laid off a pair of pitches, got the count to 3-2, then got a letter-high fastball. He casually went the other way to left with the pitch for a single, scoring Dwight Smith Jr. and making it 5-3.
That’s the sign of a hitter at ease, who isn’t doing too much. Maybe this stretch is simply Baltimore’s 161-million-dollar squirrel finally finding a nut. But the stats indicate a hitter who’s come alive, and he’s started to look the part as well.
We’ve seen a return of vintage Davis, however brief it’s been. Here’s hoping he plans on sticking around.