SARASOTA, FLA. — Chris Davis isn’t fooling himself and neither should you. The Orioles’ big slugger is even bigger this spring and has gotten off to a surprising start, but we’re a long way from declaring that he has figured out why he fell off the superstar map three years ago.
It just doesn’t work that way. The early part of the exhibition season might be the worst time to draw any legitimate conclusions about a guy who would be a strong candidate to be named Comeback Player of the Year if he raised his batting average to .240.
Davis knows that. He has lived under the dark cloud of public disapproval too long to set himself — and everybody else — up for another season on the blink. If his current hot streak carries through the Grapefruit League exhibition schedule and into the regular season, this could turn into the feel-good sports story of 2020, or —failing that — could leave Orioles fans feeling seduced and abandoned once again.
Which brings us to the question anyone should ponder to make a rational assessment of the string of very productive at-bats that Davis has put together during his first five preseason games:
Is it realistic to believe that Davis has discovered something about himself that will allow him to rediscover the power stroke and on-base capability that made him one of baseball’s most dangerous hitters from the time he arrived in Baltimore in 2011 until his hitting skills fell into steep decline after winning his second major league home run title and signing the largest contract in Orioles history?
Of course, that’s a very long question that didn’t require a lot of thought until Davis reached base in 10 of his first 14 spring plate appearances (through Monday), hit three long home runs in consecutive games and didn’t strike out until his fourth exhibition start.
Just to put that in some perspective, Davis had not hit home runs in three straight regular-season games since May 13-16, 2017, and only once last year had a string of 10 or more plate appearances without striking out.
For the first time in quite a while, Davis is having fun playing baseball, but he’s the first to tell you that he isn’t assuming anything about the season ahead.
He’s going to be 34 by the time the regular season starts, and his career cratered during what were supposed to be a couple of his prime seasons, so Father Time could be another critic who argues convincingly against a dramatic upturn in his performance.
“I’ve got a long way to go,” Davis said over the weekend, “[but] this is definitely a good start.”
It was New York Yankees great Yogi Berra who was famous for saying of baseball that “90% of it is half mental,” and Davis probably would agree. He has never blamed his struggles on the pressure of living up that huge $161 million contract, but he is quick to admit that he can be something of a psychology experiment.
While the Orioles encouraged him to make some swing adjustments over the winter, he resisted anything drastic and instead spent the time he wasn’t changing diapers for his 2-year-old twin girls pumping iron and putting on 25 pounds of muscle.
Not that Davis wasn’t already a big, strong guy, but he said upon his arrival in camp that he needed to do something to help him regain confidence at the plate and had noticed that a leaner, earlier version of himself was seeing a lot of baseballs caught on the warning track that used to fly well into the stands.
“There’s no doubt about it," he said. “I think anytime that I feel like I can drive the ball out of the ballpark at any point in time, that knowledge has given me a confidence boost, but it also allows me to go out there and take an easy swing. … So, I think the more physically fit I’m gonna be, the better off I’m gonna be.”
Manager Brandon Hyde could see something had changed as soon as a very upbeat Davis showed up in Sarasota two weeks ago, and it was quite in contrast to the times last season when the frustration was seeping out and he clearly was dealing with some emotional challenges.
“How could he not be?’’ Hyde said. “He’s been through a lot and things weren’t going like he wanted them to last year, so there were some tough moments more mental than anything else. He’s just in a good frame of mind this year so let’s hope it continues.”
Still skeptical? You’ve got every right to be until Davis takes this happy show back to Baltimore and parlays it into a renaissance season.