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After ‘extremely frustrating year,’ Orioles’ Chris Davis open to mechanical changes to salvage end of tenure

Between physical therapy for the knee injury that ended his 2020 season and otherwise preparing for the upcoming campaign, Chris Davis has found time for another offseason responsibility: coaching his oldest daughter, Ella, and her first-grade basketball team.

“I’m like, ‘Man, 6-year-old and 7-year-old girls, we’ve got to have fun, and there has to be some emphasis on fun,’” the Orioles first baseman said. “But I’m just not the type of person that’s like, ‘Hey, we’re just here to have fun.’ If I’m going to do something, then I’m going to compete, and I’m going to compete to win.”

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That mindset carries into baseball, as well, and it’s why his string of struggles has been frustrating not only for the Orioles and their fans, but also for Davis. In the first five seasons of the seven-year, $161 million contract he signed with Baltimore after winning his second home run title in 2015, Davis has hit .196/.291/.379, with a sub-.200 average and reduced playing time each of the past three years. He’ll turn 35 in March, coming off a season in which he batted .115, hit no home runs and had two stints on the injured list with a bout of left knee patellar tendinitis that left him with only three at-bats after late August.

Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has repeatedly said that Davis is under contract and the organization takes that seriously. Davis does, too, and that’s why, in the coming weeks, he’ll begin exploring mechanical changes to simplify his batting approach in hopes of producing in 2021.

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“I think it’s just time for that,” Davis told The Baltimore Sun. “I was reluctant to really change mechanically because of the troubles that I went through in Texas [with the Rangers], and that was a big emphasis, ‘Let’s do this,’ and I didn’t want to tinker. Plus, I’d had success with my prior mechanics, but it’s to the point now where I realize that, look, I’m not getting any younger, I’m not getting any quicker, I’m not getting any faster.

“I think all of the movement that I have pre-pitch and even pre-swing, it’s killing me, and it’s not allowing me to have success, and it’s not allowing me to have sustained success, so I think if I can just clean that up a little bit and simplify it, it’ll be hopefully a lot better than it has been.”

Davis began 2020 with hope. He arrived in Sarasota, Florida, with an added 25 pounds, part of a strength-rebuilding plan constructed with the approval of Elias and manager Brandon Hyde, and began spring training with a 1.682 OPS, three home runs and nine walks, tied for the most in the major leagues. But then the coronavirus pandemic canceled the rest of spring training and shut down the sport for almost four months. Because of the uncertainty of when and whether the season would begin, Davis continued working out, which he believes caused his body to wear down before the sport even returned.

“Obviously, it was an extremely frustrating year for me, personally,” Davis said. “Especially after getting off to the start I did in the first spring training, I was really excited about the season. I had really high hopes, and I was just ready to get underway. The hardest part about navigating the whole shutdown was really there was no blueprint for how to take care of your body or how to maintain or ‘Should I be taking a break?’

“For me, I just continued to keep going because I felt so good in spring training, and honestly, at the end of the day, if I got hurt or if something happened and I didn’t have success and it was because I hadn’t done enough, I don’t think I would’ve been able to look myself in the mirror. I would rather it have been a situation where I did too much, and that’s kind of what happened. My body just got to the point, and before we even started back up with the second spring training, I just knew that I wasn’t right, but I felt like I owed it to myself, I owed it to my teammates to at least give it a shot.”

Davis first complained to Hyde about his knee problems about a few days before he was first placed on the IL on Aug. 21. In truth, he’d been experiencing the issues since the Orioles began working out in early July, but he assumed his body was just adjusting to the changed schedule.

Davis going on the IL served as the corresponding move for the promotion of prospect Ryan Mountcastle, who has been viewed as a potential successor to Davis as the Orioles’ first baseman since converting to the position in 2019. After his call-up, Mountcastle primarily played left field but also spent some time at first base while posting a .878 OPS, positioning himself to play over Davis in 2021.

Renato Núñez, who led the Orioles in starts at first base in 2020 largely as a result of Davis’ injury, was designated for assignment Friday. Although he was a far more productive player than Davis over the past two years — a .783 OPS with 43 home runs vs. a .564 OPS with 12 home runs — the Orioles are required to pay Davis the next two years, as well as the $42 million over 15 years he’s owed in deferred salary, regardless of whether he’s on the roster; Núñez was due a raise as a first-time arbitration-eligible player, but Baltimore dodged paying it by removing him from the 40-man roster.

Also impacting Davis’ path to playing time next season is the potential return of Trey Mancini, the 2019 Most Valuable Oriole who missed last year with colon cancer but is now cancer-free and plans to be ready for spring training. Davis said he hasn’t talked with Hyde or Elias about his role for 2021, though Hyde was clear last season that Davis being active didn’t mean he was required to be on the field.

“I hope Trey comes back and just absolutely lights the world on fire,” Davis said. “I know I’m not going to be here for the next 10 years, not even the next five years, but I want to do everything I can to help those guys reach their fullest potential and help our club reach its full potential.”

In the near term, doing the latter means improving himself. He had only three at-bats after returning from IL before going back on, but in those plate appearances, he showed a glimpse of tweaks he started working on while rehabbing at the Orioles’ alternate training site in Bowie, particularly closing his batting stance.

As recently as last year, Davis has been against the idea of changing mechanically, pointing to how deep he is into his career and noting that he’s had success with those mechanics in the past; in his first four full seasons with the Orioles from 2012 to 2015, he averaged nearly 40 home runs a year and led the majors twice. But he’s open to changes now that he believes will make him more “consistent” and “efficient,” adding he also needs to shed some of the added weight he put on last offseason.

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“I think it was a good thing, but I think it came with a price,” Davis said. “Obviously, I haven’t carried that much weight in several years, and I think my body kind of let me know about that.

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“I wouldn’t say I’m taking it easier, but I can’t hit it as hard as I did last offseason. That was the first thing that was relayed to me. It’s not a secret. Everybody knows it. I’m getting older, and age takes a toll on guys in a lot of different ways.”

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