There has been much discussion about Chris Davis’ candid comments to Orioles’ reporters when he reported to camp earlier this week. If the Orioles were planning on being competitive this season, this wouldn’t be this big of a story. But fans are understandably interested in what the highest paid player in franchise history has to say. Especially when he is simultaneously one of the worst offensive players in Major League Baseball.
There is a lot to unpack from Davis’ comments. Below are a few thoughts that went through my mind while reading them and have stuck with me.
Entertaining retirement is telling
It is obvious that baseball players, or any athletes, need to be in top physical condition to compete and succeed at the highest levels in their respective sports. Sometime overlooked is the mental and psychological makeup needed for that success to be achieved. Most fans cannot comprehend the dedication and number of hours invested in their craft just to be drafted by an MLB team. Once there, a certain mindset is needed to compete against the best athletes in the world. After Kobe Bryant’s tragic death, the “Mamba mentality” received a lot of attention and discussion. It is something that nearly all top athletes would say they strive for: drive, focus, preparation, and the unrelenting will to win.
This crossed my mind when I read that Davis contemplated retirement. He said “I’d be lying if I told you that wasn’t at least talked about toward the end of the season last year and this offseason” and later said he’ll likely revisit it after the 2020 season. While I’m not a sports psychologist, common sense says that these are not words that would be uttered by a person who is confident in their ability to succeed at the highest level. Against players who are confident in their ability to succeed at the highest level. Diminishing physical skills aside, it sounds like Davis is lacking the mental and psychological toughness needed for him to get back to productive form.
“I hit the way I hit”
When Davis was asked about the club’s offseason plans for him, he said that any major changes to his swing mechanics and stance weren’t in play. “I hit the way I hit” were his exact words. I understand that Davis was once one of the most feared power hitters in the game and that he thinks his current swing got him there. But baseball is a game of adjustments. There have been Hall of Famers who tinkered with their mechanics and swing over the course of a career. I find Davis’ refusal to make any sort of meaningful change frustrating.
Orioles fans have been reminded too often of the abysmal statistics Davis has put up over the past two seasons. So to use just one: it is ridiculous that a “power hitter” with a .602 OPS in 2019 is too proud and stubborn to make some adjustments.
One of the larger themes from Davis’ comments is how his offseason training program was centered around putting weight on. “I really wanted to put some weight on and get my strength back up. I didn’t realize how far away I had kind of gotten from that... If you look at my career over the years, I’ve tried hard to keep my weight down. I thought it was going to be better for my body. But it hasn’t produced any results, so I figured I’d try something different, something that has proven to work in the past.”
I understand why Davis, who has always been a large guy, would want to be especially mindful of staying at a healthy and manageable weight. But he ascended to stardom by hitting lots of home runs. His power is his livelihood. I’m wondering if Orioles front office officials, coaches, and training staff suggested his trimming of weight over the years or if it is something he did on his own. On the surface, it doesn’t make sense for a power hitter to purposely try to cut down that much weight and rob himself of his strength.
Is Davis doing what the club wants of him?
Fans may remember when Jim Palmer called out Davis early in the 2018 season, essentially questioning his claim that he put in lots of work with former hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh over the offseason. In December, Mike Elias and Davis’ agent Scott Boras talked about the slugger’s struggles and indicated that a change in offseason program would be forthcoming. Davis’ comments about this offseason did not include mention of any plan or program devised for him by the Orioles or his agent. I’ve already mentioned Davis’ attitude about changes to his mechanics and approach.
If we were to give Davis the benefit of the doubt, each of these instances taken on its own could be explained away. But taken together, it is easy to paint a picture of Davis as a player who is stuck in his ways and is resistant to ideas of how he could change things to hopefully achieve better results.
It is unlikely that the O’s would call Davis out on this publicly, but I find it very hard to believe that a front office as advanced as Baltimore’s would send Davis home to Texas after the 2019 season with the instructions to put some weight back on and work with Craig Gentry. There are many reputable private hitting coaches that Davis could have utilized this winter. Recently at the Birdland Caravan, Sig Mejdal spoke about the technology he plans on deploying to help O’s hitters in 2020. Davis could have used some of that in an offseason hitting program. It sounds like that wasn’t the case.
Warning track power
Davis mentioned during this media session that one of the reasons he wanted to build his weight back up is because he’s hitting a lot of balls that die on the warning track or don’t quite get to the warning track. I initially took this as absurd. When I think of Davis’ struggles, my mind goes to the strikeouts. His strikeout rate in 2019 was nearly 40%, up over ten points from his MVP-caliber 2013 campaign. Lack of strength isn’t the reason you can’t make contact or get the bat off your shoulders on an 0-2 pitch, Chris.
But when looking at the numbers, maybe Davis has a point. In 2018 and 2019, 14.5% and 18.2% of his fly balls went over the fence. In five of his previous six seasons, that number was over 24.8%. Unsurprisingly, his exit velocity and barrel percentage have been decreasing.
To end on a positive note, Orioles fans looking for any shred of positivity to latch on to can hope that Davis comes into 2020 with the strength he displayed during his best seasons. If more fly ball carry over the fence, maybe he will get his confidence back.
All in all, it was an interesting and telling session with reporters. With the Orioles surely headed for another losing season, the performance, mindset, and contract of Chris Davis will remain a storyline in Baltimore.