Once upon a time, Chris Davis was an MVP candidate. This distant past is colloquially known as the 2013 season, wherein Davis destroyed 53 home runs and hit .286/.370/.634. The baseball world stood in awe of the massive Orioles first baseman as he made fools of pitchers and sent fans ducking for cover with his mortar blast dingers. It seemed that the AL East had yet another monster on its hands.
2014 was a different story. Davis struggled to a meager .196/.300/.404 line while hitting only 26 homers and serving a suspension for unauthorized Adderall usage. Davis had regressed and then had his production retract even further. It was because of these two wildly different seasons that no one really knew what to expect from Davis in 2015. Would the world-beating Davis show up, or the generic three true outcomes Davis? The answer is somewhere in the middle.
For most of the season it was Nelson Cruz who led the game in homers. Davis now holds the lead by two, 41 to 39. He hasn't been grabbing a great deal of national ink because of the free-falling Orioles, who have rather dramatically fallen out of true contention for a Wild Card. On the whole, Davis is not having an overwhelmingly remarkable season either beyond his lead in home runs. Yet this resurgence has major implications not for the Orioles, but for the next team that gives Davis a paycheck.
Chris Davis will be a free agent for the first time this winter, and he might be the best pure power hitter on the market. Yoenis Cespedes likely is the most complete hitter of the impending free agent class, yet Davis will be a tantalizing target for a team looking to inject a substantial dose of thump into the middle of their lineup. His .296 ISO this season is the second-highest mark of his career behind that ridiculous 2013 campaign. What changed between 2014 and 2015 that lets Davis mash again?
Below is a handy-dandy GIF composed of two charts from Brooks Baseball. The first chart breaks down Davis' whiff rates in different parts of the strike zone in 2014, and the second does the same for his 2015 campaign. There's a very noticeable difference.
Davis swung and missed quite a bit on pitches below the zone in 2014. That problem is gone this year, and he's whiffing less across the entire diagram. Due to the nature of his approach at the plate, Davis is always going to post mammoth strikeout numbers. He's a big man with a big swing that's designed to deposit baseballs into the stands. Not everyone can be Tony Gwynn, and that's okay. He's only marginally lowered his strikeout rate this year, but he's done it while being stingier about swinging and missing.
Raising his BABIP from .242 last year to its current .316 has also helped matters. A spat of unnaturally poor contact last year (only 36 percent of his balls in play were hard-hit) contributed to Davis' offensive cratering, and that problem has now been solved. While Davis is a prime candidate to be on the business end of an infield shift, he's actually pulled the ball more this year. 55.1 percent of his balls in play have gone into the right side of the field. Davis isn't trying to beat the shift by going the other way; he's simply muscling the ball through it and over it.
Needless to say, there will be a market for the services of Chris Davis this winter. A.J. Preller's Padres seem like an interesting possible destination, as Preller is notably fond of big power bats and could use an upgrade at first base. The Red Sox and Marlins (haha!) also could be looking for long-term solutions at first base and have the disposable income to toss around to land Davis. The man called Crush has positioned himself for a very nice payday in the coming months. He'll probably end up with something smaller than Nelson Cruz's 4-year, $58 million contract, but it's hard to imagine the Orioles not giving him a qualifying offer and his new team giving him fewer than three years of guaranteed money. Someone will be placing quite a few extra dingers onto their roster this winter.