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Orioles slugger Chris Davis' breakthrough season has broad appeal, historic company

BaseballMajor League BaseballChris DavisBaltimore OriolesTheater

Hank Aaron never hit as many as 53 home runs in a season. Neither did Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Frank Robinson nor Mike Schmidt.

So with 53 homers going into the final game, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is not only the most prolific single-season slugger in club history. He’s part of a select group that includes just 17 power hitters in baseball history.

As the Orioles wrap up their season Sunday, short of the playoffs, it’s worth reflecting on what a rare show Davis gave Baltimore fans in 2013.

He found that hard to do himself, talking about his season the day after the Orioles were eliminated from postseason contention. “It’s hard to reflect and look back on personal accomplishments right now, because I still have a sour taste in my mouth,” Davis said.

The enjoyment will come with time, manager Buck Showalter said. “They’re going to do that regardless of whether I want them to or not,” he said. “They should.”

Davis wasted no time showing fans what was coming, homering in the first game of the season and the one after that and the one after that and the one after that. Pair that with his close to the previous season — homers in six of his last seven games — and it was obvious Davis could produce rare power streaks.

The thing was, he had also done that in Texas and then washed out as a prospect. So some observers spent April and May waiting for the bottom to fall out. That skepticism was pretty well gone when Davis reached the All-Star break with 37 home runs and a decent shot at chasing Roger Maris’ 61, which some consider the nonsteroid record for a single season.

He couldn’t maintain the pace.

Davis struggled in July, just as the baseball world woke to his remarkable performance. He bounced back with nine homers and a .660 slugging average in August before fading again in September, when most of the lineup went into a funk.

In reviewing his season, he was proud that he held the form on a swing he’d rebuilt the previous season and that he wasn’t too hard on himself during down stretches.

“I felt like, especially after the All-Star break, guys were really making adjustments, really coming after me a lot harder,” he said. “And there were times when I was a little inconsistent. But I think for the most part, given everything that’s gone on and what we’ve been through as a team, I’ve done a good job of keeping up with my routine, being consistent and really keeping a good solid approach going.”

For a little perspective, Davis still hit at a 40-homer pace during his uneven second half. That allowed him to pass Brady Anderson’s club record of 50 home runs with almost two weeks to spare. Anderson, now an Orioles executive, cheered from the stands at Fenway Park as Davis crushed a 2-1 slider over the deep center-field wall.

Anderson wasn’t the only past Orioles slugger to join the admiration society.

Jim Gentile, who posted the club’s first big home run season with 46 in 1961, was in town Thursday to congratulate Davis in person. He had earlier sent an encouraging email as Davis pursued the club record.

“Every decade has their star, and this guy is going to be a star for years,” Gentile said.

Standing out

There are any number of ways to parse Davis’ impressive season. His performance stands out in part because the game is no longer as glutted with home runs as it was a decade ago. Only one other player, reigning American League Most Valuable Player Miguel Cabrera, has cleared even 40 home runs this season.

Across the majors, players have homered every 39.6 plate appearances this season. That’s very similar to the home run climate when Gentile had his big season in 1961. By contrast, when Anderson hit his 50 in 1996, players homered every 35.7 plate appearances.

The analytics website Fangraphs.com recently ran a study of all the 50-homer seasons from the past 50 years and found that Davis’ was one of the more impressive compared to league norms. The site ranked his season 10th out of 28 since 1965. By the Fangraphs measure, his power performance doesn’t stand out compared with the best of Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. But then, there’s no evidence that Davis has used performance-enhancing drugs as Bonds and McGwire admitted to doing.

Home runs aren’t the only impressive part of Davis’ power hitting from 2013. He also has 42 doubles, tied for seventh in the majors entering Sunday. How rare is it to see such a pairing of homers and doubles? Only one other player has hit at least 53 homers and at least 42 doubles in the same season: a guy by the name of Babe Ruth.

A stat called isolated power is another way to measure a player’s pop; it tells you how many extra bases he has accumulated per at-bat. With a mark of .349 before Saturday night, Davis ranked far ahead of No. 2 Cabrera and was on track for a top-50 season all time. of all-time.

If clutch hitting is your fixation, Davis delivered that as well. Entering the weekend, he was hitting .313 with 11 homers in late-and-close situations, defined as plate appearances in the seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one or with the tying run at least on deck. He was hitting .362 with two outs and runners in scoring position.

You need your homers long and majestic? Davis leads the league in “no-doubt” shots, defined by ESPN’s Home Run Tracker as balls that clear the fence by at least 20 vertical feet and land at least 50 feet beyond it. Of course, he also leads in homers that barely cleared the wall. The man has simply hit a lot of home runs in 2013.

Despite his record-setting total, it’s not clear that Davis has authored the best offensive season in Orioles history. He’s on pace to lead the AL in homers, RBIs and total bases and to finish in the top three in OPS — on-base plus slugging — and offensive wins above replacement, the most popular tell-all number in the analytics community.

But in 1966, Frank Robinson not only won the Triple Crown, he also led the league in on-base percentage, slugging, runs scored and every advanced offensive statistic on the books. It’s an awfully tough hill to surmount.

The obvious question now: Can Davis do it again?

Raising the bar

History suggests he won’t simply fade away. The list of players who hit at least 53 homers in a season isn’t crammed with flukes. Of the 16 other players who have cleared that mark, only three — Maris, Luis Gonzalez and Hack Wilson — failed to hit at least 40 home runs in another season. Eight of the 16 posted at least one other 50-homer season.

Davis knows he will enter next season facing a level of outside expectation he’s never experienced. If he returns to his 2012 level — 33 home runs would’ve placed him top 10 in the majors this year — fans will crinkle their noses.

But he doesn’t seem concerned.

“I’ve expected it for myself for a long time,” he said. “I had struggles in Texas, and I think that’s where I got away from it. I tried to be a player that everybody else wanted me to be instead of the player I knew I was capable of being. Obviously, when you hit 50-plus home runs in a season, you’re going to draw some attention to yourself, but I just hope that everybody counts on me to be there every day and compete. The numbers are going to be there at the end of the season.”

Showalter was impressed at the way Davis analyzed his 2012 season and grew from it. So he also sounded unconcerned about the expectations facing his first baseman.

“If we took a poll of how many home runs Chris Davis is going to hit next year or how many runs he’s going to drive in, you’d probably get a wide variance, which tells you how hard it is to do and how unpredictable a lot of things are,” he said. “That’s why we always reach for the things we know can be consistent, like defense and effort.”

Neither did Davis seem nervous about the contract talk that will percolate as free agency approaches after the 2015 season.

“I would love to stay in Baltimore,” he said. “This has been a place where I really feel like I’ve been accepted and loved and really appreciated. And that’s rare, especially in this game, to find a place where you can call it home.”

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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BaseballMajor League BaseballChris DavisBaltimore OriolesTheater
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