If we’ve learned anything over the past few years, winning the major league home run title is a tough act to follow.
Chris Davis has a pair of them while with the Orioles. Mark Trumbo has one. In each case, they found it difficult to pick up where they left off the next season.
Now, they are working to rebound from frustrating performances last season and it’s impossible to understate what it would mean for the Orioles if both had big bounce-back seasons in 2018.
“If Mark and I can get back to doing the things we’ve done in the past that make us the run producers for this team, it’s going to be huge for us and huge for our entire offense,” Davis said. “I know that’s kind of an obvious thing to say.”
Well, kind of.
It’s also easy to say and very hard to do. Big league baseball is a cat-and-mouse game of constant adjustment. Davis, 32, followed his 53-homer season in 2013 with an injury-marred 2014 that featured fewer than half that number. He hit 47 in 2015 before signing a club-record seven-year, $161 million contract that winter, only to watch his batting average and run-production numbers decline sharply again in 2016.
Trumbo, 32, filled that void with his major league-leading 47 homers in 2016 and signed a three-year, $37.5 million contract after helping lead the Orioles back to the playoffs, only to endure the same kind of year-after hangover.
“I just didn’t have a good year in a number of ways,” Trumbo said. “Some things were actually pretty good. I had some game-winning hits. But overall, just never found that groove that gave me a whole lot of breathing room when it comes to the numbers. It was kind of an uphill battle most of the time.”
Davis was having his own problems last season. He suffered another oblique injury and, by his own admission, lost some of his natural aggressiveness at the plate. But he also identified with what he felt Trumbo must’ve been going through.
“To have a year like he did two years ago, people don’t understand how physically, mentally and emotionally draining that is,” Davis said. “Not to say you take the next year off, but it just wears you out. And I’m sure there was a little bit of a carryover for him the next year and obviously being in the first year of a contract, it’s kind of uncharted territory.”
The two would appear to have much in common. Both are Bunyanesque power guys who can carry a team when they get hot and look lost when they’re not. Both are easy targets for fan frustration when the Orioles are struggling and the big guys at the middle of the lineup aren’t mashing home runs to meet the outsized expectations they have created for themselves.
They are not, however, just a couple of doppelgängers who hit from opposite sides of the plate. They are different personalities who tackle the challenges of playing at the highest level in different ways.
“We’re two completely different animals when you talk about what makes us tick, the way we compete, even the way we work,” Davis said. “He is very premeditated, very strategic — definitely a lot more cerebral than I am. I’ve always been kind of a feel guy, instinct, rely on my ability. I kind of go on how I feel. I think he’s a lot more tactical the way he attacks his routine, his work and stuff like that. It’s been fun to have a guy like that.”
Of course, it’s normal to view them as a mirrored pair because they do the same job and they have the same kind of impact on a lineup. The reality is that they are friends who played against each other in the minor leagues and the American League West, and have built some kinship during their two years together in Baltimore. But they don’t really view themselves as one of those fence-busting combos like Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle or José Canseco and Mark McGwire.
Davis and Trumbo haven’t been together that long and they didn’t come up together in the same organization. They also have only reached that level of combined success in one season, combining for 85 homers and 192 RBIs in 2016.
“I think it’s more fun for the fans to look at things like that,” Trumbo said. “I think if you want to go with that friendly rivalry, teammate-type thing, Jon [Schoop] and Manny [Machado] might be an easier pairing. In the case of Chris and I, we’ve done this for long enough that I think for both of us, we don’t operate like that. It’s not something that couldn’t happen, but I think our individual styles are putting our heads down and doing the best we can individually, where I think Schoop and Manny are motivated by the friendly rivalry, jabbing each other and egging each other on.
“I think that brings the best out of them, because they each want to outdo the other and if one of them is having a good year, the other one isn’t going to be far behind. They’re a better example. I think Chris and I are more to ourselves in those ways, but I think we’re all just rooting for everyone in our lineup to have a nice season.”
Their teammates certainly know what it would mean for the club if Davis and Trumbo pump up the volume this season. The Orioles have power throughout the lineup and they’ll need all of it to compete in the AL East against an ascendant New York Yankees team that just added last year’s home run champion and the talented Boston Red Sox, who recently signed free agent J.D. Martinez off a 45-homer season.
“We need them,” Machado said. “They’re big pieces of this team … of this puzzle. We need them to have a good season. I know everybody knows that and they know that themselves. They know what they’ve got to do. They know their jobs. The first step is just trying to be healthy and being able to go out there and be able to put up the numbers. We’re confident in them and we know they’re going to do a good job.”
Health was a problem for both Davis and Trumbo during spring training. Davis was hampered by a sore elbow/forearm and Trumbo (sore right quadriceps) will start the season on the disabled list.
The Orioles appear to have the roster flexibility to fill in if either needs significant time to get ready, but there is no substitute for having two potential 50-homer guys looming every time an opposing pitcher takes the mound. At their best, they can change the nature of the game just standing in the on-deck circle.
“I’ve said many times, I’m not going to hang the fortunes of our team this year around one person or one particular phase of the game, but those are two [guys] that we know what their track record says they’re capable of,” manager Buck Showalter said. “What drives people to walk Chris Davis 90 times a year, even in a year when he strikes out 200-something times? It’s the fear of power. It’s the fear of damage on one swing.”
Here’s a breakdown of Chris Davis’ and Mark Trumbo’s stats from their full seasons with the Orioles. Davis won the major league home run titles in 2013 and 2015 while Trumbo won it in 2016.
Chris Davis file
Year; G; HR; RBI; OPS
2012; 139; 33; 85; .827
2013; 160; 53; 138; 1.004
2014; 127; 26; 72; .704
2015; 160; 47; 117; .923
2016; 157; 38; 84; .792
2017; 128; 26; 61; .732
Mark Trumbo file
Year; G; HR; RBI; OPS
2016; 159; 47; 108; .850
2017; 146; 23; 65; .686