For an instant, it was like we hadn’t flipped the calendar to 2014: Chris Davis, game on the line, game-winning blast. Because 2014 has not been that kind of year for Chris Davis, and that has to make you wonder whether he’ll ever produce as much magic as he did in 2013 ever again.
Keep in mind, it wasn’t very long ago that Davis seemed like a guy it wasn’t so unreasonable to trade away in a deal for a reliever, even if that deal was for Koji Uehara (pre-Red Sox savior edition, machine-like efficiency not included). Three-quarters of the way through the 2012 season, Davis was just another handy slug, a guy hitting .251/.302/.428, with 18 home runs in 414 plate appearances, rotating from first to DH to right field to provide power as needed where needed. A nice enough guy to have, but more Jim Traber than Eddie Murray in the annals of first-base greatness for the Orioles.
It was that final third of the 2012 season that saw Chris Davis turn into Crush, mashing 13 homers in Baltimore’s last 32 games to power a 20-12 record and the postseason. That stretch run was just a preview to last year’s 53-homer romp, a season so good that Crush got to crash the annual “,a href="http://espn.com/mlb/player/_/id/5544/miguel-cabrera">Miguel Cabrera vs. Mike Trout for MVP?” party.
But baseball is a game of adjustments. The league has adjusted, feeding him a steady diet of stuff out of the strike zone, and more breaking and off-speed stuff overall. As Mark Simon notes, it’s been killing him, especially against the right-handed pitching he used to eat up.
Fundamentally, he’s still the same kind of hitter: Striking out in a third of his at-bats, as he has in June, isn’t really unusual for a guy with a 30.6 percent career strikeout rate, and his home-run rate of 15.2 percent isn’t very different from what he did in 2012, when he homered in 16.9 percent of his at-bats. Per FanGraphs, his homer-to-fly ball ratio has dipped from going yard 29.6 percent of the time he got it in the air to 21.4 percent, which is also lower than his 25.2 percent mark in 2012, and that suggests a part of the problem: More weak contact against pitchers who aren’t giving in to him the way that they used to. The balance over who controls an at-bat is as delicate as it gets, a struggle that lets everybody agree that baseball is a game of failure because nobody wins that fight all the time, and it’s one that Davis has been losing more and more often.
In recent weeks, as documented by BrooksBaseball.net for Baseball Prospectus, he’s compensating by getting more and more aggressive at the plate, and the lack of results it had earned him pine time seating with White Sox southpaw Chris Sale on the mound.
However, given a chance to be the hero coming off the bench against White Sox closer of the moment Ronald Belisario, he got a cookie and he crunched it. The question is whether he’ll be able to manage his at-bats to create those same kinds of opportunities, or if he’ll have to let go of last year’s luster and enjoy the benefits of working his way toward a lot more ball fours and being a baserunner in front of Nelson Cruz’s spin with super-slugger stardom this season.
That might seem the easy thing to do, but it’s never actually that easy. Considering Davis is the Orioles’ lonely, only source of serious power from the left side of the plate, that’s not even necessarily an answer, especially when you might expect Cruz to start slowing down at some point this season. And after a year like 2013, Davis is stuck in baseball’s classic conundrum: Show me… again. It’s something Orioles fans of several vintages might know only too well, because it was a challenge that Brady Anderson couldn’t rise to after his 50-homer season in 1996, or Diamond Jim Gentile after his 46-homer campaign in 1961. Heck, even Jim Traber had his own glorious peak, ripping eight homers in three weeks in 1986; he didn’t get to do that again.
As the saying goes, if it was easy everybody would do it, and everybody doesn’t. The talent is there for Davis to hammer 50 homers again, but as wonderful as Davis has been, the cruel challenge is that while we’re asking if he’ll do it again, he’s the one who has to try. And if the Orioles are going to come out on top of the AL East’s scrum, they’re going to need him to be Crush again.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.