By In Stuff

The At-Bat That Transformed Chris Davis

It is always fun when you can pinpoint the moment that everything changed. With Chris Davis, we can pinpoint it to a single at bat.

The date: August 18, 2012. Up to that point, Chris Davis was a mild-mannered pseudo slugger who would occasionally knock one out of the park and, more often, swing wildly and miss. It had been that way since he was a rookie in Texas. I remember a game in Kansas City, August of that year, when he absolutely mashed a home run off Joel Peralta. The swing was perfect. The home run was majestic. The feeling was: Geez, this guy’s ridiculously strong. He could hit 40 or 50 some year.

The career was a disappointment for a good while after that … well, the list of big corner infielders with ridiculous power who don’t quite make as stars it is a very long one. Heck, the best Boston Red Sox chat board is named for one (Sam Horn). There’s Calvin Pickering, Scott Thorman, Ryan Shealy, Greg Pirkl, Dallas McPherson, Wes Helms, Damon Minor … well, there are too many to choose from. Davis bounced up and down with Texas, had some injury issues, and when he was traded to Baltimore for Koji Uehara and some cash, nobody really noticed much.

And last year, up to that August 18 date, Chris Davis was doing pretty much what he had always done. He was hitting .251 with a lamentable .302 on-base percentage and 18 home runs. That day seemed like pretty much any other day. He blooped a single in the first off Detroit’s Rick Porcello and then he struck out in the fourth. He came up with two runners on in the seventh, with the game still scoreless, and on a 1-1 pitch he hammered a long opposite field home run. “It wasn’t even a bad pitch,” Porcello moaned after the game. The Orioles won 3-2.

There was no reason to believe that at-bat would change everything. But ever since then, Chris Davis has been different. It’s like a comic book thing. He homered again the next day. Four days later, he hit three home runs against the Blue Jays. A week later, three hits in a game. A week later, another three hits. The batting average climbed. On September 26, he began with a double-play groundout and a strikeout, but then he homered off Carlos Villanueva and then homered off Chad Beck.

He homered again the next day. And the next day. And the next day. And, yes, the next day. And, absolutely, the day after that as well. The season ran out on him. After that August 18 at-bat, he hit .323, slugged .712, mashed 15 homers in 36 games.

And then, well, you know what he’s doing this season.

In his last 118 games, he’s hitting .330 with 31 doubles, 46 homers, 109 RBIs, 86 runs.

This happens in baseball sometimes — stars emerge from seemingly nowhere. David Ortiz was released by the Twins before he became a megastar. Andre Thornton was discarded three times before he became a sturdy and solid slugger for Cleveland. Jose Bautista was dumped, sheesh, a half dozen times before he became one of the best hitters in the game. Cecil Fielder went to Japan and returned as a home run champion. Kevin Mitchell was traded twice before he hit 47 homers and won the MVP for San Francisco.

Chris Davis poked a fastball the other way for a home run in late August, and somehow, something clicked.

Our buddy Craig Calcaterra has spent much of Monday morning pointing out the skeptics who are taking to Twitter to scream “steroids” — the sad but inevitable reaction to any sustained power run these days. It’s a rotten deal; Chris Davis has done absolutely nothing to draw such suspicion. Anyway, he seems to be handling it well. When someone on Twitter named @MichiganMagic1 asked him if he was on steroids, Davis replied succinctly. “No,” he wrote.

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26 Responses to The At-Bat That Transformed Chris Davis

  1. Joe: Somebody elsewhere, I forget which publication, recently wrote that Davis stopped weightlifting before games and that changed everything.

  2. olderholden says:

    It would be great, Joe, if Chris Davis verified your assertion – that something happened in the KC at-bat that transformed him. What was the “click”? Inquiring hitters want to know.

  3. Exodor says:

    “the list of big corner infielders with ridiculous power who don’t quite make as stars…”

    How long before we have to add Moustakas to that list? He’s already got over 1200 PAs

  4. nightfly says:

    Somewhere in Vegas, Ike Davis is nodding grimly to himself.

  5. ribender says:

    Considering that Davis had nearly 1,500 plate appearances and was well into his age-26 season when he hit that homer on August 18, it might be a bit premature to give up on Moustakas, who is just in his age-24 season. Betting Texas wished they had given Davis another year and a half right about now …

    • Rob Smith says:

      Jason Heyward was tagged for greatness at a young age too. Since he’s been pretty inconsistent, there are some who think he’s a bust after 3 1/2 years and almost 2000 plate appearances. But, oh yeah, he’s 23 years old. Maybe a little premature for the reject pile. Maybe the same for Moustakas…. Expectations can be a bit out of line when a team is looking for a savior, not just a starter.

  6. Sean Roark says:

    Taking BP with Jim Thome may have had a huge influence on Davis. He tweaked his swing and his approach under Thome’s tutelage the 2nd half of 2012. I think Harold Reynold’s mentioned this.

    • Phil says:

      He’s also apparently using a Thome-model bat: heavier barrel, lighter handle. Did that switch happen at Thome’s suggestion? As a Yankee fan, he’s getting like Ortiz: I hate to see him at the plate.

  7. Steve O says:

    “It’s a rotten deal; Chris Davis has done absolutely nothing to draw such suspicion.”

    Well, technically, neither did Luis Gonzalez or Brady Anderson. A lot of people thought Bautista on steroids due to his incredible 2010; you don’t see many people make that accusation anymore now that he’s generally kept raking for 3 years since then.

    He’s also in his age 27 season, so maybe he’s just starting to figure it out. It’s well within the realm of possibility that he’s simply a late-bloomer. I’d like to see what he does the next couple of years. If this ends up being a one-off year like Gonzo or Brady, though, don’t expect the steroid talk to go away.

    • Frank says:

      How about the theory that Davis stopped swinging at so many bad pitches.

    • Steve O says:

      How about the theory that things aren’t always that simple?

      Yes, steroids are also a simplistic, knee-jerk rationale; but no more so than “he’s seeing the ball better” or “he stopped swinging at bad pitches.”

      Joe rebels against lazy narratives all the time. In the Francouer article, he kept saying “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

      Well, I think “Chris Davis changed because of one at-bat” is a lazy narrative. But isn’t it pretty to think so?

      As far as Davis’s newly discovered strike zone discipline, well, what do the stats say? Check it out:

      Davis is swinging at less pitches outside the zone than he did in 2012, but more than he swung at in a small 136 PA sample in 2010 where he had a 51 OPS+.

      His HR/FB percentage is up a pretty good bit as well:

      Did Chris Davis just put it all together this year? Is he doing it without any outside help? Is he blooming late and will he continue to rake after this year, in the mode of Ortiz and Bautista? Well, I don’t know. But isn’t it pretty to think so?

    • Steve O says:

      And also, Davis fans…don’t take it personally. Like Joe says, *everyone* with a sustained power run is accused of being a user. That was the price of eating Jose Canseco’s tainted apple of knowledge; awareness in exchange for innocence.

      I’d prefer to think that everyone is clean, but I’m not naive enough to think that testing has completely eradicated steroid use.

    • Ian R. says:

      I don’t think Joe is saying that everything changed BECA– USE of that at-bat – clearly, that would be ridiculous. I think he’s just saying that that home run marked the moment when he went from a struggling sort-of hitter to a dominant superstar.

  8. Steve O:

    But since steroids don’t work like Popeye’s spinach, the quick turn around in production isn’t really explained by PED use either. I think he probably just hit a hot streak as a player as he reached the proven peak performance age for a batter. George Foster is a good non-PED comp to such a player.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Since steroids can quicken bat speed and allow hitters to wait longer, in fact, and so steroids can and have been like Popeyes spinach for many,many baseball players. Also, I wouldn’t be so quick to call George Foster a non user. Fact is, steroids have been around since the 50s and in US professional sports since the 60s. And there was no testing in baseball until very recently. Steroids didn’t just arrive in 1985 with Jose Canseco as many imagine. I’m not indicting him, but like with Bautista, I’m watching to see what happens. Ryan Braun, and others, remind us that steroids are a real facto and probably always will be.

    • Rob Smith says:

      This comment has been removed by the author.

    • Steve O says:

      Long number-letter string name:

      I agree, steroids aren’t like Popeye’s spinach. They’re not an “auto-win” button, and lots of guys used and never succeeded (circle me, Manny Alexander!)

      And like I said, it could just be a guy hitting his peak. Davis is in his Age 27 season; a lot of guys put it all together around their age 27 season. You don’t even have to go back to George Foster: David Ortiz, mentioned by Joe in the article, broke out in 2003 with the Red Sox during his Age 27 season, then peaked with 54 HRs at Age 30. A perfectly reasonable, expected career arc.

      Of course, you said “non-PED comp,” and some believe Big Papi is a user, but I think he deserves the same “innocent until proven guilty” courtesy as Chris Davis. And of course, with Papi, we know it wasn’t just a one year thing; he turned it on in 2003, and he’s been raking pretty solidly for a decade since then.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Ummm…. Ortiz is a known user.

    • Ignoramus says:

      Ortiz has serious allegations of steroid usage against him.

    • This is not aimed at Davis, but, I think the narrative that steroids don’t help players as much as you might think was handily disproven by Melky Cabrera, among many others (Carlos Ruiz and Brett Boone also come to mind). We’re talking about hitters that are *maybe* league average becoming all stars. They even skipped over “good” – they went from blah to great.

  9. Ashley says:

    It wasn’t “sketics” that screamed steroids. Skeptics suspend judgement in the absence of evidence. People leaping the steroids conclusion for Davis are the opposite of skeptic.

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