Davis' daunting challenge: Burying brutal 2018

O's slugger hopes offseason changes help get career turned around

March 24th, 2019

SARASOTA, Fla. -- There is one shady spot amongst 35-plus acres of the Orioles' Spring Training complex, beneath a row of Australian bottlebrush trees tucked behind a batting cage in the facility’s southeast corner. They separate a miniature practice field, where prospects spend mornings doing infield drills, from a vernal pond coaches retreat to in the afternoon, fishing poles in tow. A mockingbird is yelping somewhere in the canopy, and the team bus has already rolled away by the time pulls up a chair.

It’s a picturesque place to revisit the worst year of your life.

“Going through that, knowing what it looks like, knowing what it feels like, and knowing that on the other end of it, everything is going to be all right, that gives me peace of mind,” said Davis, looking very zen in designer shades as a wisp of sunlight shines through. “I remember how I felt [then], and a lot of it was frustration, exhaustion. I was at a place where I didn’t know where else to go.”

Davis is talking about the low moments, when he wept, when he considered quitting, an offseason removed from a summer that will always stain him. What happens after perhaps the worst season in Major League history? What happens after 162 games of, in Davis’ words, “falling flat on your face”? What happens when the game sprints past you so spectacularly? What happens when afterward, spring still comes again?

“It can swallow you up in a hurry,” Davis said. “Now that I have been through it, and I know how quickly it can consume you, there are things you can do, if nothing else, to set your mind and not go down the same path. I know that I don’t have to just sit in it by myself, and carry all that weight by myself.”

In a few minutes, he will hop in his car and meet the team in Dunedin, Fla., where he will bat cleanup, play first base and go 0-for-2 with a strikeout and a walk against the Blue Jays. In a week’s time, he’ll be in New York for Opening Day, where he’ll probably bat cleanup and play first base. He will have a locker at Camden Yards for an indeterminate amount of time. He will be with Baltimore financially through 2037.

But just because he begins the year does not mean he will finish it, a jarring reality for a two-time home run champion, for the highest-paid player in franchise history. Now at the dawn of perhaps the most consequential season of his career, Davis, 33, knows he’s at a crossroads. He is equal parts pensive and playful. He is both someone whose accountability has been chided and something of an open book. He is baffled by what happened last year and has somewhat come to terms with it. He is the Orioles’ player rep and the antithesis of basically everyone he shares a clubhouse with, age-, bankroll- and baggage-wise. He is Baltimore’s largest cost certainty and its biggest unknown, all wrapped in one. He is many things, stupid not one of them.

“I made a commitment, and I’m going to stick with that commitment. Whether it works out or not, we’ll see. I feel like it’s my responsibility as a man to honor that commitment,” he said. “But I think it would be foolish of me to say I expect them to sit back and do nothing [if] another season like last year is going on.”

The Orioles are expecting that commitment, which is why, in his first face-to-face meeting with general manager and executive vice president Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde, Davis’ new bosses more or less mandated that he buy in to the data-driven processes they plan to implement. They also assured Davis he was a big part of what they planned to do, which Davis said “was a huge relief to me” given he “had a few questions about where I stood, I was just kind of curious where they saw me fitting in.”

It’s a sentiment Elias and Hyde have maintained since arriving in Baltimore, though Elias hasn’t commented on Davis publicly since the Winter Meetings. Back then, after a conference with Scott Boras, Davis’ agent who consummated his seven-year, $161 million contract with the old regime, Elias reaffirmed his commitment to Davis as a central fixture.

"It behooves us, and it behooves Chris and it behooves the Boras Corporation, to collaborate and share notes on how we can turn his performance around this year," Elias said. "I just want to see his productivity get better. He's on the team. He's on the team for a while.”

“I just want Chris Davis to enjoy being here and have a good year,” Hyde said recently. “I like Chris a lot. I think he’s done a lot of good work this camp. When the season comes, I’m looking forward to him being a big part of our lineup.”

The reality is, though, that nothing is guaranteed about Davis’ future besides how much it will cost. He is owed $17 million this season, nearly a quarter of the club’s projected payroll. He is owed $17 million in 2020, $17 million in 2021, $17 million in 2022 and $42 million in deferred money until he’s 51. Davis hit .168 with 192 strikeouts last season, with 16 home runs and one over his last 28 games. He has hit .202 with a 87 OPS+ since signing the deal in 2016 and has been worth 0.5 bWAR over that stretch.

The industry trends that bedevil him -- infield overshifting; high-velocity, left-handed relievers willing to work inside -- have only become more commonplace. The Orioles’ window of contention has slammed shut. Stylistically, he once epitomized the power-for-contact tradeoff teams remain willing to make in droves. But somewhere, Davis’ swing became akin to an outdated version of still-hot technology, last year’s iPhone devoid of updates.

There is simply no way of knowing what the new regime will do if he continues to struggle.

“I’ve tried as much as I can to focus on what’s right in front of me,” Davis said. “There is a lot of help around me right now. There are a lot of people in my corner, and I feel like we’re all on the same page.”

One of those people is Mike Brumley, the Minor League hitting coordinator for the Braves who spent this winter training Davis outside Fort Worth, Texas. They first worked together more than a decade ago, when Davis was a promising young slugger in the Rangers’ system. He had his (big) share of swing-and-miss even then, but Davis’ contact issues reached another level last summer. He played in just 128 games, and still, only one player took strike three more often. With two strikes, Davis had the lowest swing rate of any player on pitches in the strike zone, per Statcast, and the lowest swing rate of pitches in the heart of the zone. His heat maps compared to as recently as 2016 are striking.

So this time, Brumley suggested a top-down approach to revision, in a literal sense.

“Maintain his posture, quiet his head … to affect the way he’s seeing the ball,” Brumley explained. “Trying to close some of those holes a little bit.”

Davis is confident the adjustments will bear fruit, though he admits “you can’t just ignore” how tangible results have yet to arrive. A bout of bronchitis and a strained left hip flexor haven’t helped. Regardless, he went into Saturday just 4-for-29 (.138) with 16 strikeouts this spring. Another marathon year waits a few days away.

“There is still hope, and a lot to look forward to as far as my career is concerned,” Davis said. “I’m ready to step into the next phase.”

And with that, Davis rises from the shadow of the bottlebrush and begins a long walk toward whatever that entails. He looks back once, then strolls right into the sun.