Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Chris Davis Breaks Through (Finally)

Davis launches a go-ahead home run in yesterday's game at the Trop
The Baltimore Orioles eked out a 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rays yesterday. James Shields went the distance in a losing effort, coming up short against Miguel Gonzalez and Baltimore's unflappable bullpen (51 saves for Jim Johnson!).  Big Game James was truly masterful as he whiffed 15 Orioles, didn't walk anybody and allowed just two hits.

But one of those hits was a long solo home run by Chris Davis in the fourth inning, a majestic shot that carried way past B.J. Upton and the centerfield fence. As the only run scored by either team, it turned out to be the difference maker.

Davis has gone yard in six consecutive games now, giving him 33 bombs on the year and raising his batting line to a healthy .272/.328/.505 in the process.  Like teammate Mark Reynolds, he's inflicted much of his damage in the past six weeks. Davis has socked 15 home runs, three of which came on August 24th in a 6-4 win over the Blue Jays, during the most important stretch of the season.  He's white hot, and thanks to his heavy hitting the Orioles reached the playoffs for the first time since 1997, back when Roberto Alomar, Cal Ripken Jr. and Mike Mussina wore the orange and black.  Davis, like many of his teammates, has never played in a postseason game before.

But that's about to change.  The Orioles, currently tied with the New Yankees for first place in the AL East, are gunning for the divisional flag to avoid a do-or-die play-in game with the Oakland A's.   Davis has played a big part in Baltimore's success; he leads the team in home runs and RBI (though Adam Jones is right behind him), set personal bests across the board and has begun to meet the high expectations that dogged him earlier in his career (much like Alex Gordon, or former teammate Jarrod Saltalamacchia). After years of disappointment, he is finally realizing his potential as he enters his prime.

It's about time.  The 6'3, 230 pound corner infielder is blessed with the natural Giancarlo Stanton brand of power that makes scouts drool.  The Texas native signed with the hometown team in 2006 and proceeded to tear through minor league system.  By June, 2008, the Rangers had seen enough and punched his ticket to the Show. The 22 year-old stroked a single off Houston reliever Oscar Villarreal in his first big league at-bat.  The following day with Philadelphia in town, Davis launched his first major league big fly, a two-run shot at the expense of Clay Condrey.  He was just getting warmed up. In his first month of big league action he smacked ten home runs, batted .303 and slugged .730, inspiring the fans and media to call him "Crush Davis."  His bat cooled during August, but he hit well in September and ended his rookie campaign with 23 doubles, 17 home runs, and .285/.331/.549 figures in just 80 games played. Had he played the entire season, he almost surely would have given AL Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria a run for his money.

It's no wonder people were so high on him entering 2009.  That power, combined with the ballpark and a stacked lineup around him (Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Ian Kinsler), led many to expect big things out of the young slugger. I remember him being compared to Carlos Quentin, who led the AL in AB/HR rate in '08, finished second in home runs (one behind Miguel Cabrera) and slugging percentage (two points below Alex Rodriguez) while winning a Silver Slugger and netting a top-five finish in the MVP race despite missing 32 games.  But the dreaded "sophomore slump" hit Davis hard. When the Rangers optioned him to Triple-A on July 5th to make room for Hamilton coming off the DL, Davis was batting .202 and had fanned 114 times in 258 at-bats, an astounding 44 percent clip.  His hitting improved after he was recalled in late August, but his strong finish wasn't enough to make up for those three months of futility.  On the bright side his power remained intact;.204 ISO and 21 home runs.

Optimists hoping Davis would rebound in 2010 watched him get off to another brutal start, with nary a home run and but one RBI in his first 15 games, earning him another stint in Triple-A, where he spent most of the season. He returned to the big club for 16 games in July and 14 more in September, but didn't hit a lick. In all he received 120 at-bats and finished the season with just one home run and four RBI. 2011 brought more of the same, as Davis was shuttled back and forth between the minors and the majors. Unable to receive consistent playing time, he continued to struggle.

That's when the Rangers finally gave up on him.  Turns out, teams don't have much use for position players who don't hit, field, or run. The day before the trading deadline, they dealt him and starting pitcher Tommy Hunter to the Orioles for Koji Uehara and cash.  Davis went 0-for-4 in his Baltimore debut, but he seemed to settle down and ended the year on a high note; over the season's final three weeks he batted .342 and swatted eight doubles.  Nobody noticed, because the O's hadn't played a meaningful baseball game in months, but perhaps that stretch of regular playing time and hot hitting gave Davis the confidence he so desperately needed (brief sidenote; the Rangers shouldn't beat themselves up over this deal.  Hunter hasn't improved in Baltimore and Uehara has been one of the Rangers' best relievers this season despite spending most of the summer on the Disabled List.  His 1.82 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and 41/3 K/BB ratio are all ridiculous).

Sure enough, that success has carried over into 2012.  Davis came out of the gates swinging a hot bat and proved he belonged as an everyday player, even if that meant batting anywhere in the order except ninth or leadoff and splitting time at first base, left field, right field, and DH.  Granted, Davis does more harm than good just by bringing his glove to the ballpark, but his potent bat makes up for it. Like most high-strikeout guys (Adam Dunn, B.J. Upton, Jim Thome) this free-swinger is prone to lengthy droughts, but when the stakes are high he takes his game to another level.  Whether you believe in clutch hitting or not, you can not deny that Davis has been deadly with runners in scoring position (.977 OPS) and in high leverage situations (1.023 OPS) this year. He has come through time and time again.

But will he do it in the playoffs, against tougher pitching when the lights shine their brightest? We'll find out soon enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment