Comparing Chris Davis’ 2019 season with his 2018 campaign yields a minimal net gain. But the Orioles’ first baseman has felt a massive difference between the offseasons that have followed each.
Davis is barely more than a month removed from a 2019 season in which he set multiple hitless streak records, got into a public verbal altercation with his manager and was reduced to a bench role by the end of the year. But to hear him talk about that month is to listen to a man who believes 2020 will be more like the distant past than the recent past.
“It’s really early to tell, but I feel like it’s different already, just the way the season ended, really the way the season went,” Davis said. “Obviously, it wasn’t a great year for me, but last year and two years ago felt completely different. It was — I’m not gonna say easier to go through this season, but I enjoyed being around the guys. I enjoyed coming to the ballpark. I feel like there’s hope now. We have [executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, assistant general manager Sig Mejdal, manager Brandon Hyde] and the whole coaching staff. We have guys that are here for a reason that are very upfront with their plans. There’s a direction, and our minor league system is starting to come along.
“I have hope now, to where I had so many questions two years ago when the season ended. I’ll tell you again in a few months, but I like where it’s headed.”
Davis, 33, hit .179 with 12 home runs, his fewest in a season in which he played at least 60 games, a year after posting a .168 batting average that was the lowest for a qualified hitter in major league history. In the first four years of the seven-year, $161 million contract he signed with Baltimore after the 2015 season, Davis, a two-time home run champion during his time with the Orioles, has hit .198 with a .698 on-base plus slugging percentage and 745 strikeouts in 2,063 plate appearances. A $42 million portion of his contract is in deferred payments from 2023 to 2037.
In the final weeks of the season, both Davis and Elias have referenced a “routine-based” program with designs on getting Davis to be more like the player who hit 197 home runs from 2012 to 2016 than the one who hardly saw the field in September the past two seasons. Speaking Monday after the announcement that he and his wife, Jill, were making a record $3 million donation to the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital, Davis said he’s already seeing the returns.
“There’s just direction,” he said. “I felt like last offseason, I had all this motivation and really no direction, so I was really just like, ‘Well, I guess I’ll try this and see if it works.’ And I feel like now, we have a plan in place, and we actually know what we’re trying to accomplish.”
In 2019, Davis played in only 105 games, his fewest in a full season with the Orioles. He started only 18 of the team’s final 48 games, a stretch that followed his dugout dustup with Hyde on Aug. 7. Davis later cited that “hitting a breaking point” prompted his spat with Hyde, saying that he had been frustrated with what he considered a defensive mistake on top of his offensive struggles.
Reduced to a reserve role, Davis used that time to jump-start his offseason program. He hit a game-winning home run against the Seattle Mariners in Baltimore’s home finale and also had a go-ahead homer in extra innings against the Toronto Blue Jays during the season’s final road trip.
“It’s something I actually asked Mike about,” Davis said. “I was like, ‘Is this cool if I, since I’m not playing every day, is it cool if I kind of start doing this now?’ And he was like, ‘I think it’s a great idea.’ So I was able to go into the offseason with a head of steam and already put the plan in motion.”
Jill Davis noted that her husband normally takes October off, but she said Davis has been ramping up his activities to the point it won’t be long before he spends his days working out, running and hitting, all while balancing the scheduling quirks their three daughters bring. The Davises have a family trip planned for early December, plus a mission trip in January.
“When you have three kids, it’s hard,” Jill Davis said. “Now, our oldest is in kindergarten and soccer and gymnastics, and she wants to play tennis.”
“And be a ballerina,” Davis added.
The roller coaster of offseason parenthood might not live up with the one Davis had to deal with when it came to his 2019 performance. He began the year with 33 hitless at-bats and 38 hitless plate appearances, which — paired with a drought to end a 2018 season — gave him records for most consecutive at-bats and plate appearances without a hit.
A three-hit game against the Boston Red Sox on April 13 sparked a month in which Davis hit .290 with a .952 OPS and five home runs in 21 games. But a rainout in New York started another dry spell. Beginning with a May 15 doubleheader against the Yankees through the end of June, Davis posted a .145 average, striking out in 43 of his 90 plate appearances with no home runs.
His up-and-down season continued from there. He took a four-game hitting streak into the All-Star break, having homered twice on the Orioles’ final first-half road trip, before going hitless in his first four games of the second half.
Davis was 0-for-16 with 14 strikeouts on a late July, West Coast road trip before hitting a game-winning home run against the San Diego Padres in the last game of the trip. He reached base in six straight contests before Hyde removed him from the Aug. 7 game after their altercation.
The strikeout numbers in Davis’ season were a particular concern. Nearly 40% percent of his plate appearances ended in strikeouts, the most of any major leaguer with at least 300 plate appearances. His 60 looking strikeouts were tied for the most in the majors with Kansas City’s Jorge Soler, who came to the plate nearly twice as much as Davis.
But Davis doesn’t plan to make dramatic mechanical changes in 2020. He said the Orioles asked whether he would be interested in attending a private hitting school this offseason, but he wonders how much he could change at his age.
“They’ve basically left it in my hands and said, ‘If this is something that you want to do, we’ll do everything that we can to help,’ but I’m 33; I’ll be 34 in March,” Davis said. “How many years is this, 10, 11? My career is obviously … I’m on the back side of my career. I don’t think there’s going to be a massive swing overhaul where I’m changing mechanically and spreading out. That’s just not gonna happen.
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“I’ve had success in my career several times hitting the way that I do. There are definitely things that I can fix, and I think that’s really the page that we’re all on: What do you want to do, how do you want to go about it and how can we help? We’re about to start answering some of those questions here in the next couple of weeks.”