Baltimore Orioles’ Chris Davis talks about his approach at the plate for this season. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)
SARASOTA, FLA. — No player in the major leagues struck out at a higher percentage last season than Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, but the most frustrating part of Davis’ 2017 season was the majors-high 75 called strike threes he watched.
Davis said he is going into this season focused on swinging more earlier in the count. He’s a power hitter who manages to draw a lot of walks, and after analyzing last season and working with Orioles hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh, he realized he too often was trying to work counts rather than doing what he does best: hitting the ball out of the ballpark.
“I think it was completely mental,” Davis said on Monday morning before the Orioles’ first full-squad workout of spring training. “Mechanically, I feel like I’ve pretty much done the same thing year-to-year. The mentality was too passive, and I made it a point to say that at the end of the year last year.
“There were too many called third strikes, there were too many called first strikes,” Davis said. “There were too many times when I was starting the at-bat 0-2 and hadn’t even swung the bat, hadn’t taken the bat off my shoulder. That’s just not who I am as a hitter. It never has been. I think early on in spring it’s good to swing the bat, kind of know where I’m at to kind of get a little bit of feedback to know where I’m at. That’s something I plan to do.”
As a team, the Orioles regressed in most facets of the game – offensively, defensively and obviously with the starting pitching – on their way to last year’s last-place finish in the American League East and they quickly fell out of a crowded playoff race with a putrid September. The team will undoubtedly be counting on more consistency from Davis and fellow slugger Mark Trumbo if they are going to rebound in a reloaded division in 2018.
“There wasn’t a whole lot to celebrate last year,” Davis said. “Last year, since I’ve been here, was the first year that we didn’t even have a [non-losing] record. And it wasn’t the fact that we just didn’t have a winning record, we really just kind of fell off the face of the earth when it counted most. There are definitely adjustments that need to be made. I feel like the group of guys we have are plenty capable of making those adjustments.”
Davis, who had the highest percentage of strikeouts in the majors last season at 37.2 percent (195 in 524 plate appearances), said he doesn’t plan to tweak his swing, only his approach at the plate.
“It’s going to be more about my approach, kind of my attitude and really what I’m trying to accomplish at the plate,” Davis said. “A lot of that is where I’m going to be dictated in the lineup, what the game is asking me to do, but I think it all starts with the mentality.”
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said that as much as Davis struck out looking last season, he was also hurt by his reputation of striking out a lot, meaning that umpires didn’t give him the borderline calls.
“That doesn’t mean he’s going up there and swinging at anything that moves,” Showalter said. “I think Chris as much as any of our players, he’s such a respectful guy to the umpires. Going back through it, because he doesn’t argue a whole lot, I don’t think he gets the benefit of the doubt much. I really don’t. He has a lot of pitches called on him just because he strikes out a lot. I think sometimes that works against him. It’s something I’d like to see change. There aren’t many borderline pitches he doesn’t get called strikes on him. As much if not the most of any of our guys.”
Davis said he hopes to get the most out of his spring training at bat this spring, even though pitchers attack hitters differently during Grapefruit League games. Veterans are less focused on setting up hitters than they are getting a feel for their pitches while logging innings. Pitchers fighting for roster spots are more apt to show a club their arsenal, and that can lead to more pitches to hit than a hitter would typically see during a regular season plate appearance.
“I think you have to treat spring training like it’s the regular season,” Davis said. “I’m talking about for me. For me to go out there and take pitches and try to work the count, I mean I don’t think it’s going to do me any good. These at-bats are precious because you can kind of do some things and work on some things and not really have to worry about the results. That’s something Cooly and I have talked about and really try and take advantage of these at-bats and make the most of them.”
Davis is a momentum hitter, and when he starts the season well, he has the ability to carry that mojo for long stretches, but when he starts slow, he has spiraled. Last season, his batting average dipped earlier and he batted through the rest of the season trying to get it back up. Also, 79 of Davis’ 195 strikeouts came in the first two months of the season. Because of that, even though they are just exhibition games, spring training will be important for Davis because he wants to go into the season feeling good about his plate appearances.
Davis is entering the third season of his club-record seven-year, $161 million deal, and his first two years of the contract have been a disappointment. After averaging 40 homers and an .876 OPS in his first four full seasons with the Orioles, Davis has averaged just 32 homers and a .765 OPS since signing his long-term deal. Last season, he posted a meager .215/.309/.423 hitting line and his 61 RBIs were his lowest full-season total since coming to Baltimore.
“An immense amount of pressure, all the pressure in the world,” Davis deadpanned when asked if he’s feeling pressure connected to his deal. “And I embrace it. No, I think the pressure is really what you allow it to be. We play a professional sport for a living in the eye of the public every day, so you have to embrace it, you have to understand that it’s going to be there. Pressure makes diamonds, or something like that. I’m not saying I’m a diamond.”
Davis believes that numbers will improve if he can limit his strikeouts – which have always been a big part of his game. He’s averaged 194 strikeouts over his six full seasons with the Orioles, but his walks also went down despite watching more pitches. Davis’ 11.6 percent walk rate last season was his lowest since 2014.
“When you’re in the batters box and you’re on offense, you should have an offensive mentality,” he said. “You can’t hit when you’re going out there looking to work a walk or something like that, and that’s something that over the years, my walks have gone up, but I think it’s been more a byproduct of me swinging and knowing where I’m at. … You get a lot of feedback from your swing, and if you’re just going up there and take your pitches and don’t swing the bat, you have no idea what’s going on. You don’t know what your timing is, you don’t know how you feel, so I think a lot of it has to do with the mentality when you’re talking about me.”