Chris Davis' astonishing start to this season hasn't occurred by accident. Through 12 games, he's putting up numbers that are only fit for video games. But it's the result of the 27-year-old Orioles first baseman's realizing that he can truly get more with less.
It's a result of countless discussions that Davis has had in the indoor batting cages with hitting coach Jim Presley, who told Davis to look at his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame and realize he could hit homers without having to muscle a ball out. And it's the result of knowing he's going to be in the lineup every day — that's he's here in the big leagues to stay as a key piece of the Orioles and their success.
Davis entered Monday's off day leading the American League in practically every major run-production category — home runs (six), RBIs (19), extra-base hits (10), total bases (37), slugging percentage (.902) and on-base-plus-slugging (1.362). Dating to last season, Davis has 13 homers and 32 RBIs in his past 19 regular-season games.
But Davis is more proud of his eight walks through 12 games, or the fact that he's hitting .429 (6-for-14) with runners in scoring position, or that he's driven in seven of those 19 runs on two-strike counts.
“I think the biggest thing for me was early in spring training, I wasn't really focused on getting hits or hitting home runs,” Davis said. “I was more focused seeing pitches and working the count and really hitting the ball hard no matter where it was. I think that's really all I've been doing so far — just trying to go out there and simplify everything. ... The patience is paying off.”
Describing his offensive tear from the visitors dugout at Yankee Stadium, Davis made it sound simple, but throughout his career, he's been through his share of adversity.
Before he was dealt from the Texas Rangers to the Orioles for reliever Koji Uehara before the 2011 trade deadline , Davis shuttled between the majors and minors for parts of four seasons. He saw other young first baseman such as Justin Smoak and Mitch Moreland leapfrog him on the Rangers' organizational depth chart while he struggled to show he could duplicate the numbers he put up in the minors. During one stint at Triple-A Round Rock in 2011, Davis hit an astonishing .368/.405/.824 with 24 homers and 66 RBIs in just 48 games.
“I know for a fact it was hard on him, just seeing younger guys get more opportunities than you,” said Orioles right-hander Tommy Hunter, who has played with Davis since Double-A ball and came to Baltimore with him in the deal for Uehara. “He was excited to come here. I would have been, too. He had his chance. He knew he was going to be an everyday guy, that he was going to get 400 at-bats to see what he could do. He kind of put it on display [in 2012]. He's showed this is what he could do if he got 400 at-bats.”
With his 515 at-bats last season, Davis led the Orioles with 33 homers and 85 RBIs while hitting .270.
He did, however, strike out 169 times, the fourth-highest total in the American League. So, Presley has preached patience with Davis, telling him that he doesn't have to swing from his heels to be productive.
“When you hit consistently in the minor leagues like he did it, it's going to show up eventually, and last year and this year it's showing up,” Presley said. “You're seeing why he put up the numbers he put up in the minor leagues. With young players, they have to learn how to hit here. Not every young player is going to come out and rake and be like Ken Griffey Jr. It's not going to happen. You see a lot of good players get sent down two or three times.”
Said manager Buck Showalter: “I think he's kind of understanding who he is a little bit. People talk about range of infielders. He's got range with a bat. You can't stay in one place with him, and he's not a pull-conscious guy. If you stay in a spot with him, he's going to make an adjustment. He's one of those guys who can have three tough at-bats and still be a threat and guys are still looking at the batting order to see when he's going to hit again. It's one swing away.”
Davis has been at his best this season with men on base — he's 9-for-20 with six extra-base hits (two doubles, four homers) and 17 RBIs.
“He just looks comfortable,” said center fielder Adam Jones, who is hitting .412 this season batting ahead of Davis. “He knows he's going to play every day. He knows he's going to be in the lineup. He's comfortable. And we're just feeding off each other. I'm getting on base for him and he's driving me in.”
Davis said receiving Showalter's faith that he could be the Orioles' everyday first baseman after struggling there last season has carried over at the plate. After Davis was displaced by Mark Reynolds at first last season, he moved to designated hitter and the corner outfield spots, which meant more pregame work at other positions and less work in the cages.
Early in the offseason, Showalter called Davis and told him he wanted him to play first.
“That was huge for me because it let me know where I stood with the club,” Davis said. “There have been days when I've come in here and I haven't had to look at the lineup card, just knowing that I'm going to be playing first and hitting somewhere in the middle of the order. It's a great feeling to have. I think last year [moving around] was taking a toll on me, especially at the end of the season because it felt like I was burning the candle at both ends.”
This offseason, Davis said, he got back to the routine that earned him the reputation as a strong first baseman coming up through the minors. Working with infield coach Bobby Dickerson, Davis got back to a first base mentality. He had played a lot of third base before he arrived in Baltimore, so he had developed a charge-and-throw mentality. He's reset his internal clock, knowing he can play back on balls and still make the play at first.
“The things I'm proud of right now are the way he's playing first base and the way he's handling the attention,” Showalter said. “He's handled it real well.”
Now the question is whether Davis — who has been a streaky hitter in the past — can sustain those strong at-bats, cut down on strikeouts and shorten the slumps that are bound to occur during a 162-game season.
“He's human,” Presley said. “He's going to struggle at some point. It's just about shortening that struggling period. It's not just about hitting home runs. We need him to drive in RBIs when they present themselves, man on third base and infield back. I tell him all the time, ‘That's how you drive in 100 RBIs. It's not just the three-run home run. It's getting that run in during the first inning when the infield's back. That's how you do that.'
“Let me tell you what, he's a great kid with a great work ethic. He's got a great mentality to play this game and he wants it. So I think this start doesn't surprise me at all.”