Breakout year comes easy to Davis, but journey to stardom didn't
NEW YORK -- There's a calm and ease in everything Chris Davis does.
For a big slugger -- the 27-year-old Orioles first baseman is a hulking 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, and has hit a major league-leading 37 home runs already -- the distance of his homers isn't nearly as memorable as their frequency. Davis sprays baseballs to all fields, sharing souvenirs equally to all sections of the bleachers, and he seems more concerned about getting them over the fence than by how much over they go. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, his blasts' average distance is 403.9 feet for a pedestrian ranking of 35th among players with double-digit homers.
"Most of his home runs are just line drives that get out," teammate Adam Jones said, before later acknowledging, "Obviously he hits some moonshots too."
One of Davis' former teammates in Texas -- where he was drafted in the fifth round in 2006 but five years later became the odd man out in a first-base position battle with Mitch Moreland -- noticed an increased comfort level in his swing.
"Watching his highlights, you can totally tell that he's relaxed and just letting it happen," said Phillies starter Cliff Lee, who was with the Rangers for their first World Series run in 2010. "He's not putting anything extra into it. It's just nice and easy, and it's impressive to watch. . . . He and Miguel Cabrera are the two best power hitters in the game, in my opinion."
The sudden star himself acknowledges a change in demeanor from his early career to his arrival in Baltimore midway through 2011 and his 33 home runs in '12.
"Obviously being comfortable and relaxed is going to translate into more success," Davis said. "I think after being traded over to Baltimore and getting the chance to play every day and establish myself as an everyday player in the big leagues, I think it took a lot of pressure off me."
Perhaps most remarkably, Davis is as calm as can be when fielding questions about this season's surge in home runs.
At last week's hot and humid All-Star media day, he fielded round after round of inquiries about his thoughts on the home run record (he says the "clean" mark is Roger Maris' 61), on the 1998 season in which Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa first surpassed Maris ("really brought baseball back to life after the strike" but it was "disheartening" to learn later how it happened) and on the league's testing program for performance-enhancing drugs ("super sophisticated, in my opinion the most strict in all of sports").
"I think I was a little frustrated at first, just at the thought that someone would even question it, but I understand it comes with the territory," he said. "I think there's no reason not to believe in me."
He also said, "I don't understand really why anybody would try to cheat it, but at the same time I know it's happened. For me, all I can do is go out and continue to do what I've done and try to give people a little bit of hope of what to look for in the future.
"For me it's something that never really crossed my mind. I've always been a strong guy. I've always had power. For me it was more about consistently putting the bat on the ball and not swinging at balls that are 14 feet out of the strike zone."
Davis has struck out more than 30 percent of the time he steps into a big league batter's box. That includes a whopping 35.8 percent during his extended look with the Rangers in 2009, which was the majors' worst among players with at least 400 plate appearances. His strikeout rate has dipped to 28.3 percent this year, and the type and quality of his contact has changed, too. According to FanGraphs.com, he's getting air under the ball much more consistently, with his groundball-to-flyball ratio this year at an all-time low and some 35 percent less than his previous high in 2010.
Also in Texas, Davis says now, he felt like he had worn out his welcome. About a week after his midseason trade to Baltimore, manager Buck Showalter sat Davis down and told him he would get an extended chance to prove himself, which helped relieve pressure.
That was a necessary precursor for success, given that Davis acknowledges having wondered a few years ago if the game might not work out for him. He worried he'd be another highly touted prospect who failed. (Baseball America ranked him No. 65 overall before the 2008 season.) He remembers asking himself, "What else am I going to do?" and reminding himself, "I used to be good at baseball." He entertained notions of going back to school to become a youth pastor or a coach.
The maddening part of any prospect's failure is the evidence that they've performed before, even if it was at a lower level. Expectations are, after all, born of some combination of reality and projection.
Consider Davis' final 48 minor league games, playing for Texas' Triple A affiliate in Round Rock. He homered 24 times -- once every other game! -- while batting .368 and slugging an insane .824. For his full 472-game minor league career, he homered once every four games with a .318/.375/.597 batting line.
"I know nobody really cares about Triple A, but I put up these numbers up in Triple A. That was kind of the question, 'Was he going to be able to do it at the big league level?' The thing about it was, I just couldn't do it consistently. I couldn't put the bat on the ball. I was striking out an astronomical amount, and this year it's just been consistency day in and day out.
"I've been trying to stay with my approach, and when I put the bat on the ball, good things happen. I'm very fortunate, also, to play in a pretty good hitters' park."
Davis also began economizing his workouts, realizing that too much exertion wasn't always a good thing. He began striving for efficiency.
"I make sure I'm getting quality swings and not just swinging to swing," he said. "The work is a lot better quality. There are times you get too many swings and you start getting fatigued, and the work goes to crap."
In 2012, Davis shuffled between designated hitter (60 starts), first base (38 starts), rightfield (28 starts) and leftfield (11 starts) -- he even pitched two shutout innings and picked up a win that May against the Red Sox -- while emerging as a power threat worthy of everyday at bats. In 2013, now that he's firmly entrenched at first base, Davis has turned in a superstar season.
As good as he's been, however, Davis may see fewer pitches to hit down the stretch, especially from his No. 5 spot in the batting order, with usual No. 6 hitter, Matt Wieters, not having his best season. With 60 games to go, he's 24 homers shy of Maris and 36 short of Barry Bonds. Joining their company in the 60- and 70-home run clubs is something even Davis can't make look easy.