The Orioles and beleaguered first baseman Chris Davis have tried everything, from different lineup spots and cushy pitching matchups to revamped weight training programs, to try and get some value out of the veteran first baseman at the plate.
Their latest strategy seems to be taking hold, and is about as simple as it can be: just get in there and swing.
“I just wanted him to be more aggressive early in the count,” manager Brandon Hyde said earlier this week. “I want him, when he swings the bat, to have some presence, and swing with some intent.”
Hyde mentioned that after Davis doubled in Thursday’s loss to the Marlins. It was just his second hit of the season, one that, despite a strong spring training from Davis back in February and March, hasn’t been any different from his past struggles.
He followed that up with two hits Friday night in the Orioles’ best offensive game of the season, an 11-0 win over the world champion Washington Nationals. He had two chances for his first three-hit game since last April 13 when he broke his record hitless streak against the Boston Red Sox, but settled for a multihit game instead.
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In it’s most basic form, the team’s advice to Davis makes sense. If he swings early in the count and gets pitches in the strike zone that he can put his barrel on, the chances of that at-bat being successful are far better than if he ends up with two strikes.
On the first two pitches of his at-bats in 2019, Davis was 14-for-49 (.285) with three home runs. If the at-bat stretched farther than that, it varied by who the count favored. Davis was 12-for-34 with a 2-0 or 1-1 count in 2019, but if he facing no balls and two strikes, he struck out on the next pitch in 28 of those 31 at-bats.
Hitters are typically at a disadvantage with two strikes, but Davis’ struggles there are well-noted. He got to a two-strike count 227 times last year and struck out 139 times. Take out the 21 walks and his one two-strike hit by pitch, and Davis collected hits on 22 of 52 instances (.453) when he put the ball in play with two strikes.
His batting average on balls in play in 2019 was a respectable .270. That’s below his career average of .302, but the strikeouts mean that Davis isn’t unlucky to have hit nearly 100 points below that at .279. He’s just falling victim to the count circumstances he’s putting himself in.
Davis didn’t let the count get away from him in his first three at-bats Friday, swinging on the first pitch he saw on the evening for a double and hitting a soft lineout on the first pitch of his second at-bat. He got ahead 2-0 before singling again in the fifth inning, but struck out in the sixth and grounded into the shift in the eighth.
It’s modest progress, and Davis’ tenure with the Orioles since his seven-year, $161 million contract signed in January 2016 has been rife with false dawns and mirages. This spring might have been one of them, though the basis of that was more aggression at pitches in the strike zone and generally less passivity at the plate.
If all it took was Davis to get back to that was a reminder to hunt pitches early in counts, then perhaps all that optimism from March is founded. He shouldn’t wait much longer to find out.