Chris Davis isn’t in a slump.
An 0-for-20 skid or even a bad month fits that descriptor, but what the Orioles first baseman is experiencing is much more severe. He’s at a career crossroads, regardless of his well-documented financial security.
Entering Monday, his .166 batting average was the fourth worst in the majors among qualified hitters while his .512 on-base plus slugging percentage ranked ahead of only Los Angeles Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun (.401) and Miami rookie center fielder Lewis Brinson (.510). Davis is currently on pace to hit 14 home runs.
Light-hitting outfielder Craig Gentry has a higher slugging percentage while the just-demoted Caleb Joseph sports a higher batting average than the man who signed a seven-year, $161 million contract less than 2 1/2 years ago. The highest-paid player on the club ranks last among its 25 active players at minus-1.0 wins above replacement — Chris Tillman was at minus-1.1 before being placed on the disabled list earlier this month.
But this goes beyond a horrendous start to the 2018 season.
Over his last 1,001 plate appearances dating back to early July of 2016, Davis is batting .203 with a .301 on-base percentage and a .394 slugging percentage. He hasn’t posted better than a .757 OPS in any single month since May of 2017. Davis hasn’t performed at a level anywhere close to resembling his most productive seasons in a very long time.
This really isn’t about striking out too much — that’s always been the slugger’s weakness — as Davis’ strikeout rate is actually a touch better than a year ago and his contact rate is as high as it’s been since his massive 2013 campaign. That’s not to forgive 60 strikeouts in 166 plate appearances in 2018, but it’s the kind of contact he’s making that’s much more troubling.
Once known for Herculean power that allowed him to lead the majors in home runs twice in a three-year period, Davis’ average exit velocity has declined from 91.9 miles per hour in 2015 to 90.8 in 2016 to 89.9 last season and now down to an alarming 87.3 this season. His 46.1 percent ground-ball rate is a career high while his hard-hit percentage is down almost 10 percent from 2015, according to Statcast. His homer to fly ball ratio of 12.5 percent is nearly half of what it was even a year ago (24.8 percent). A .241 batting average on balls in play reflects bad luck at first glance, but the inability to hit the ball hard and consistent infield shifting aren’t doing that mark any favors.
That contact-to-damage ratio manager Buck Showalter once cited on the regular has all but vanished.
This isn’t just a bad season; it’s the kind of profile making you wonder if Davis is bordering on being completely finished as a productive major league player. A 32-year-old’s bat speed is rarely ever going to be what it was five years ago, but this incredible decline leaves you to at least ask if there’s an underlying physical problem. For what it’s worth, Showalter told reporters in Boston that Davis was “fine physically” before sitting him for Sunday’s game.
Many anticipated at the time of the signing that the last two or three seasons of Davis’ seven-year deal wouldn’t be pretty, but no one could have imagined him being this bad this quickly. The Ryan Howard contract has frequently been cited when discussing what Davis could become over the course of his deal, but the Orioles now would likely sign up in blood for what Philadelphia got from the former National League MVP, who still averaged 24 home runs and a .706 OPS over his final three seasons. That’s still pretty bad, but not the historic liability Davis is shaping up to be.
What can the Orioles do?
As we should have just learned over the length of the Ubaldo Jimenez contract, they’re not cutting Davis anytime soon. If the organization wasn’t willing to part ways with Jimenez at any point over the course of his four-year, $50 million contract, the thought of releasing Davis with more than four years remaining on his record-setting deal isn’t even worth entertaining. Frankly, it would make little sense for a last-place team already hopelessly out of playoff contention to make a rash decision with such dramatic financial ramifications without exploring every possible avenue to try to fix him.
But the Orioles can’t continue to pretend like this is just a slump either. That’s not to say the wheels haven’t already been turning behind the scenes to address Davis’ woes, but there’s no justification to continue to bat him in the middle of the order. If he’s going to be in the lineup on any kind of a consistent basis — also debatable — Davis should hit no higher than eighth or ninth on a given night.
The organization needs to be as aggressive as possible trying to salvage a $161 million investment that is already appearing to be circling the drain. Enlist the help of any hitting guru or sports psychologist that might be able to help. With apologies to hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh and his good relationship with the veteran first baseman, it might be time to see if a fresh pair of eyes and new ideas can fare any better.
If necessary, give Davis “the Tillman treatment” with a stint on the disabled list to work in a lower-pressure environment like Sarasota and utilize a minor-league rehab assignment to experiment and tinker with adjustments. If nothing else, a mental break might be beneficial for all parties — including the fans.
You really hope he experiences a breakthrough. I don’t believe for a second this is a result of Davis not caring or putting forth effort after getting his big contract. There are many variables you can point to, ranging from his past suspension for Adderall and treating his ADHD to the pressure of living up to such an enormous contract on a club whose competitive window has already slammed shut. But history also says many strikeout-heavy sluggers don’t age well, the argument that was being made by some while so many others celebrated Davis re-signing with the Orioles.
It’s difficult to say whether he can reverse the trend, especially considering it had already been moving in the wrong direction before this 2018 fall off a cliff.
Just seven years ago, Adam Dunn — a player with a similar profile to Davis — had one of the worst seasons for a previously-accomplished player in major league history with a .159 average, 11 home runs, and a .569 OPS in 496 plate appearances before rebounding to hit 97 home runs over the next three seasons. Dunn was only a year younger than Davis at the time of that disastrous campaign, giving you hope that a meaningful turnaround for the latter is possible.
But that may not happen with Davis. This could just be who he is now, a terrifying proposition for an organization facing dark clouds of uncertainty everywhere you look.
If every avenue is exhausted to try to fix Davis before ultimately concluding it can’t be done, then you simply have to part ways with the sunk cost. The money is spent either way.
But until that time, the Orioles must stop pretending this is only a slump and start showing more urgency — both publicly and behind the scenes — to try to fix their high-priced first baseman.