It's hard to believe that a hitter who, at 25 years old, was sent in a package deal to the Orioles in exchange for reliever Koji Uehara, could be one of the game's best hitters today. From what we've seen out of Chris Davis of late, though, that seems to be just how things are working out. He's fourth in batting average, fourth in on-base percentage, first in slugging, tops in OPS, well ahead in OPS+, third in doubles, first in homers... the list goes on.
How did he get here, though, and, more importantly, will he stay here? Davis' production is key to the Orioles' season, as their rotation isn't going to carry them to October baseball, so he'll need to remain at this elite level in order for Baltimore to succeed. He just might be able to do that, though.
Davis didn't just start hitting when the 2013 season began. He put together a .270/.326/.501 line, good for a 121 OPS+, in his first full year in the majors in 2012. What's most important to take away from that line, however, is his last month and change: from September 1 onward, Davis hit .320/.397/.660, and was fifth in the majors in homers with 10 in that stretch. It's easy enough to excuse his September outburst as a small sample fluctuation, no different than any other hot month on the calendar. There are a few reasons to think that this was the start of something instead.
For one, and most obviously, Davis is hitting even better in 2013. Since September 1 of last year, Davis has hit a major-league-leading 29 homers and has a line of .341/.426/.721, with an OPS of 1147 that towers over the next-best of last year's Triple Crown and MVP winner, Miguel Cabrera (1091). While 81 games isn't a gigantic sample, it is half a season's worth of playing time, and Davis has managed to squeeze in a full season worth of production within it. He might not slug a Bondsian .754 all season long, but it's pretty clear at this point he's tapped into that power that was so impressive for him as a prospect -- Davis slugged just under .600 in his minor-league career, and owns OPS well north of 1000 at both Double- and Triple-A. The problem had always been translating it to the majors, against the game's top pitching.
The key for Davis seems to be that he tweaked his swing by preparing himself to avoid uppercuts that put him under the ball too often. By focusing on leveling his swing to use his strength -- Davis is listed at 6'3, 230 pounds -- and bat speed to crush the baseball, he's managed to jump his homers per fly ball rate to 25 percent last year and 30 percent in 2013, up from his previous career rate of 16 percent. Davis explained the change to MLB Network back in March, prior to his 2013 domination:
It's a fascinating look at how Davis has helped transform himself at the plate, and you can see it in his numbers. According to Baseball-Reference's splits, Davis is performing 74 percent better than your average hitter when pulling the ball, 56 percent better going the other way, and 205 percent better than the league going up the middle. His strength has allowed him success up the middle before, but never to this degree, and his work going the other way is better than it's ever been.
Baseball Prospectus has PITCHf/x maps for hitters' performance in different segments of the strike zone. This is from the catcher's point of view, but it shows you just how powerful Davis has been on pitches to the outside part of the plate:
The number displayed is True Average, essentially BP's version of OPS+, just on a batting average scale. If pitchers leave the ball up, Davis has been crushing it. If it's inside, he's similarly done well. Away, though, and especially outside the strike zone, he's been able to just devastate the opposition. It's a testament to his strength that his work on the high tee has allowed him to level out his swing enough to do this with consistency:
As R.J. Anderson pointed out back when this shot happened, look at where that pitch is, look at where he extends his arms to, and see how far the ball went anyway. Chris Davis is very strong, and now he's very strong with a level swing that means he's one of the toughest outs in the game.
Opposing pitchers have admitted as much, in what might be one of the most telling signs of Davis' ability. He's seeing far fewer first-pitch strikes, and even though Davis has seen his pitches per plate appearance drop from nearly 4.1 to 3.8, he's doubled his walk rate from last year and from his career rate. Pitchers don't want to throw him as many strikes, and it's leading to more walks, and more fun with opposite field power for Davis. When pitchers do throw him strikes, as you can see from the above chart, they're paying for it.
Davis has likely improved his eye a bit at the plate, to the point where he's being a bit more aggressive, but aggressive with the right pitches -- Kevin Youkilis, who has been lauded for his ability to extend plate appearances, was able to boost his own power production in the same way a few years back. Davis' more level swing likely has a lot to do with this, as pitches he might have just popped up or become lazy warning track shots in the past have turned into serious shots, opening up where he's capable of doing damage.
If this all seems like jumping to conclusions, there was a similar situation in many ways just a few years ago, when Jose Bautista finally arrived. Bautista had a huge September that went largely unnoticed to cap off his 2009 season, when he hit .257/.339/.606 with 10 homers, giving him 13 for the year. The next season, he led with 54 homers, and then another 43 in 2011, and has hit .273/.400/.590 combined since 2010, due in part to changes in his swing and approach that completely transformed him as a hitter. It's to be seen if Davis is capable of sustaining the same kind of production in the long run, but given his power as a prospect and the changes he's made to his approach and swing, it's very likely that Chris Davis, elite hitter, is now here to stay.