In 2018, Chris Davis was just the worst. Not in a double-decker couch sense - which unlike Davis’ performance is a great way to make friends - but literally the worst full-time player in baseball, and possibly the worst ever. You have to give credit to the Orioles for rolling him out there every day and giving him the chance to set a record, and it worked out for Davis. His -2.8 rWAR is the lowest since 1871 among those with at least 100 plate appearances. A legendary season.
This is a far cry from 2015, when Davis posted a 5.3 rWAR (5.4 fWAR) season with a 149 wRC+ and knocking 47 home runs. even the year afterward he was at least effective, a 116 wRC+ and 2.6 rWAR (2.8 fWAR) giving the O’s offense a bit of a boost. Certainly not ideal for the first year of a 7 year, $161 million deal.
Cliffs being what they are though, the fall was harsh for Davis, resulting in, again, the worst season in baseball history. The Orioles are on the hook for a ton of cash still, and just now entering a rebuild period. If he holds to what he’s been, he’ll at least help with their tanking for draft picks. The ideal would be he does improve though, and at least become tradeable for some asset. Problem is, age doesn’t go backwards. Too many markers are trending the wrong way:
Chris Davis’s decline
For a guy who built his career peak on fly balls, hard hits and walks, nothing in that looks good.
So obviously, something isn’t working for Davis. His work at the plate is suffering, his ability to drive the ball - notably to the outfield and beyond the fence - is suffering. For comparison, here is a home run he hit in 2015:
And here’s one he clocked in 2018:
Both pitches are nearly the same - between 91-94, in the lower middle part of the zone where big lefties love to swing, in a hitter’s count and out of the hand of a pitcher in his division so he should have some familiarity with them. They both look pretty good, both ended up somewhere around the Camden Yards batter’s eye.
But look at these two stills from the swing. First, 2015:
And now, 2018
At the same point in his swing, where the feet and hips and core all line up between the two pictures, his hands are further back in the later photo. You can see the blur of his bat behind his back shoulder in the pic from 2018. If this is correct, it tells a story that Davis simply isn’t getting the bat through the zone as fast, or as on time, as he has in the past. This is a death knell for a high strikeout guy.
It’s not high-speed, Edgertronic video like the Astros and other forward-thinking teams use to dissect every little twitch of their players, and there could be a frame-rate issue. But other evidence suggest Davis isn’t getting to balls like he used to. This is a chart of every 100+ mph ball he struck from 2014-16:
And now here’s the last two years, 2017 to 2018:
FIrst, his rate of 100+ mph exit velo batted balls did drop a smidge, from 3.6 to 3.5 percent, but more than that is that hole that’s developed in his zone down and away on Davis. It would stand to reason that, if his bat were slower than in the past, he’d have a tougher time getting to a ball down there and driving it with authority. Both those images include grounders, liners and fly balls, so even in the first image it’s not all doubles and dingers, but hitting the ball hard is step one to getting hits. He’s not doing that in places like he used to.
This is hard to come back from, if it’s even possible. The Orioles will have to get used to Davis on the roster because he’s got $92 million coming to him. Expecting him to be even league average at this point might be a dream scenario. The Orioles are setting out on a long, dark path back to relevance, and Davis will be the face of that franchise for the worst of it.
Merritt Rohlfing writes about baseball for Let’s Go Tribe and Beyond the Box Score, and rants about it on Let’s Talk Tribe. Tell him what you think on Twitter @MerrillLunch, or email him at email@example.com.