For all but a handful of games in 2016, Chris Davis took his spot in the heart of the Orioles lineup with a mangled hand and a mind to match it.
The dislocated left thumb Davis suffered in the first month of last season not only limited him physically, but also strained him mentally. He has been through such seasons before, but for both himself and the Orioles to be assured that last year — the first of a club-record seven-year contract — was an anomaly, Davis will have to prove that both the hand injury and the head that suppressed it for six months are corrected.
"Honestly, the most frustrating thing about last year was just not being able to really take control of the situation late in the season when I wanted to," Davis said. "Once it got to the point where I was basically swinging with one hand, there were a number of times where I can remember when I thought, 'Man, I could really pick us up right here.' And it wasn't there. Trying to keep that under control and not just lose it was exhausting."
There was plenty to be frustrated about. Davis' major league career has been volatile, to say the least, but he spent the 2015 season showing he was more the 2013 home run champion than the man who had a disappointing, suspension-shortened 2014. The team rewarded him with a $161 million contract, but he said the injury he suffered during the third week of the 2016 season lingered all year.
The resulting performance was forgettable by his standards — 38 home runs but a .221 batting average with career highs in both strikeouts (219) and walks (88). The ice wrap around his left hand was ubiquitous, but the only real prescription was rest. And he couldn't even say how long he would have needed on the shelf. Davis wouldn't let it be discussed.
"I was pretty stubborn about it," Davis said. A trip to the disabled list would have made it a story, with constant queries about his recovery and progress, and every bad game bringing up the question of whether he was healthy.
"To me, my defense, the ability to get on base, the ability to run the bases well and do certain things, to me that was more important and there were things I felt like I could still do well despite the injury," he said.
But the man who beat Davis for the Gold Glove at first base last year, Mitch Moreland of the Texas Rangers, did all those things and was given a one-year, $5.5 million contract in free agency. Davis earned the richest deal in Orioles history to be much more than that. His 2016 can be deemed a personal sacrifice to that end, with his role as the franchise's foundation making him duty-bound to his teammates. He shielded the injury not only from the public, but from them as well.
"I didn't want them questioning my ability to do certain things because of the injury," he said. "I just didn't want them to know that it was affecting me. That was a challenge, and like I said, it was exhausting."
He's refreshed now. Davis knew his hand had healed early in spring, when live pitching entered the frame and the swelling didn't come back every time there was a bat in his hands. He proudly said he was blown up on the hands a few times and it wasn't anything abnormal.
But how it affected him last year, and how this season will be different, remain to be seen. The irritating takes at the plate that contributed to so many of those strikeouts wasn't hand-related, he said — just a refined approach he hopes will keep him from making bad swings and bad contact. Hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh saw something different.
"You find yourself not swinging at certain pitches or in certain situations because you don't have the confidence that you can get to it," Coolbaugh said. "You might feel like you might get jammed or something happens, it's going to make that thumb feel worse. I think it's like any other nagging injury. It plays on your mind."
Davis, to an even greater extent than other hitters, has to deal with those mental obstacles as it is. The streaky nature of his swing means the periods of destruction, when longtime teammate Darren O'Day said he becomes "the best hitter on the planet," are mixed in among barren stretches.
"Chris, he'll tell you himself, when he's feeling his best, there's no one who can get him out," O'Day said. "Chris, he'll do that a few times a year where he'll hit seven home runs in a week and he'll ride that momentum [for] a while, then there will be a tough one, a tough stretch. And where he's gotten better throughout his career is those tough stretches are shorter now."
Shortening those stretches is always the key for Davis, and one way he has found he can do that is not to tinker as much. So when Davis is trying to break out of a slump, instead of talking himself into the next at-bat being the one where he's going to turn it around no matter what and getting himself out, he stays with his plan.
At times, that creates a stalemate that doesn't favor Davis. He said he believes any right-hander facing an Orioles lineup full of right-handed batters isn't going to even give him a pitch to hit.
According to FanGraphs, he saw 34.3 percent fastballs last year, the second-lowest proportion of his career. And though Davis destroys fastballs, he's susceptible to pitches with spin — especially down in the zone — and teams attack that weakness with abandon now.
When he was at his best, scouts said, he hit the ball to all fields and went with the pitch more, giving teams fewer ways to get him out. The unwavering patience that Davis now exercises takes some of that away. He gets pull-conscious, and the rest of his plate coverage suffers. Yet he believes the difference between the version of himself that hits .220 and the version that posts a batting average 50 points higher is all about contact quality, and that comes down to the pitches he does and doesn't swing at.
"I think a lot of it is just better contact, and when I say that I mean not chasing those pitches, not going after those pitches where I don't feel like I'm giving myself a chance to succeed," Davis said. "Maybe I swing at something outside the strike zone and make weak contact and roll over it or hit a lazy fly ball. … I think the difference between those two hitters is the guy who's hitting .270, .280 is driving the ball."
A return to that could be as simple as a healthy hand. After all, the only comparable season since he vaulted into stardom with the Orioles was 2014, when an oblique injury early that year was later blamed for his .196 batting average and 26 home runs. A year later, as in 2013 — the season before his first down year — he led the league in home runs.
On a contending team with sluggers all around him in the lineup, Davis' will find his production under the microscope in 2017. Another trip to the playoffs won't hinge on it — the Orioles qualified despite down years from Davis in 2014 and 2016 — but the team's long-term commitment to Davis means they have tens of millions of dollars riding on his hand being all that held him back a season ago.
Coolbaugh saw early in spring that Davis' health was a burden shed once his thumb was no longer a problem.
"I think Chris is looking forward to — not so much a redemption — but I think it's getting that past him a little bit," Coolbaugh said. "Does that mean he's going to be hitting .290 and striking out only 110 times? Chris is going to be Chris, but I think you're going to be more comfortable coming out of the gate knowing he's healthy."