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Crush shows supreme pop to opposite field

Once a 'project,' Orioles slugger leads Majors in oppo blasts since 2015
MLB.com

Baseball's reigning opposite-field home run king, in one of the sport's myriad brilliant ironies, is a 6-foot-3, 230-pound left-handed hitter built to mash to the pull side.

But that is the danger in facing Orioles first baseman Chris Davis. It's not just that he will rotate his full frame into the pitch and send it deep into the right-field stands. It's that Davis will also sit on it, using his size not to create a boomingly superfluous pull power, but to cover the entire plate, directing his strength the other way.

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Baseball's reigning opposite-field home run king, in one of the sport's myriad brilliant ironies, is a 6-foot-3, 230-pound left-handed hitter built to mash to the pull side.

But that is the danger in facing Orioles first baseman Chris Davis. It's not just that he will rotate his full frame into the pitch and send it deep into the right-field stands. It's that Davis will also sit on it, using his size not to create a boomingly superfluous pull power, but to cover the entire plate, directing his strength the other way.

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Since 2015, when Statcast™ started tracking the direction balls are launched off the bat, Davis has 37 home runs hit left of dead center -- including eight of his 17 this year, and two of three since his return to the O's lineup in the second half. No Major League hitter has homered more to the opposite side of the field over the past three seasons.

"My perception was probably that the majority of them were to the pull side," said teammate Mark Trumbo, a masher himself, who arrived in Baltimore in 2016. "When I think his natural power is probably closer to left-center."

Davis is the out-of-place leader atop an otherwise predictable list. The left-handed hitters who follow him, for example -- Joey Votto with 35, Freddie Freeman with 29, Eric Hosmer with 25 -- have all-fields reputations.

Votto is a guru capable of commanding at-bats like few others. Freeman's ascendance was marked by his batting-practice adjustment to hit line drives over shortstop. Hosmer's take-no-prisoners swing sprays balls all over the diamond. And then there is Davis, a three-true-outcomes hitter who will walk 80 times, strike out 200 and somehow take as many balls out to the non-pull side as any of the other three.

"I think it's a result of getting a lot of offspeed pitches out across the plate, or even fastballs away. Guys tend to attack the extremes: away off the plate or way in off the plate. They don't want to yank it and leave it hanging," Davis said. "For me, I'm a bigger guy. I have long arms. Some of those pitches that are even one or two balls off the plate, I can still get to -- and hit well enough to either get it over the outfielder's head or hit it in the seats."

This is the hitter Davis has become, a plate-coverage evolution without which he wouldn't have two home run crowns and MLB's only 50-homer season in the past seven years. It's his counterpunch to the shift, knowing a lefty power hitter like him catching the ball out front is the path to an out. And the same size that makes Davis look like a dead-pull clubber is actually the key to how he drives the ball to the left side.

"You can't shift to the bullpen in left-center field," manager Buck Showalter joked earlier this year.

But Davis had to learn how to wait on pitches long enough to execute those swings. In 2007, his early days as a Rangers prospect, he arrived at Class A Advanced Bakersfield a dead-pull 21-year-old. There, hitting coach Brant Brown, under direction from farm director Scott Servais -- now the Mariners' manager, with Brown also in the organization -- went to work opening up the diamond for Davis.

Video: TEX@BAL: Davis cranks an opposite-field solo homer

"Before I got in my truck and drove to Bakersfield from Spring Training, [Servais] told me, 'This is your project,'" Brown said. "It was Chris Davis."

Davis starts his swing with his hands high, but pulls them down toward his belt and back during his load. As a young pro out of junior college, it was causing an overreaction when he turned to meet the ball.

"Pretty much his only move left was to open up and really come around the ball," Brown said. "He was forcing everything to the pull side."

Brown and Davis worked every day. Brown would put a fungo bat down Davis' back and tuck it into his pants to keep him standing tall, so he could use his size to its full advantage. They played pepper to soften his approach.

"Part of his problem as a young hitter was his intent -- to try to murder every ball and hit it to the moon," Brown said. "If Chris Davis touches a ball, it's gonna go pretty hard, and somewhere far. Our objective was to get him in a position where he was able to move the ball forward no matter where it was pitched, because he did have a lot of plate coverage and he had a lot of power."

That season, Davis went on a 35-game hitting streak, tying a California League record. He hit a Cal League-record six grand slams.

A decade later, still with the high-to-low swing but also the acquired patience to stay back, Davis has 258 big league homers under his belt.

"He definitely, by his skill set, has set up a good life for himself," Brown said.

The swings-and-misses and strikeouts will never go away. Davis is not the type to threaten for a batting title. But the "project" has averaged 39 homers a season with the Orioles. That's success.

"I was such a pull hitter coming up," Davis said. "I had [Brown] basically tell me I needed to let the ball travel more. As a result, I started hitting the ball out to left-center and left field. And yeah -- just kind of been doing it ever since."

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.

Baltimore Orioles, Chris Davis