What does it say about the state of modern sports writing when mainstream writers from across the country are following the lead of a 16-year-old high school junior?
That completely valid question comes to us most prominently care of ESPN's Rick Reilly, who used the aforementioned junior as a jumping off point to ask Chris Davis, who has hit .320/.395/.712 with 33 homers so far, if he is indeed on performance enhancers. If you've followed the media freakout regarding PEDs at all over the past several seasons, you know what's coming next. At this point, to have a fresh take on steroids in baseball a columnist would have to come out and full-throatedly proclaim, "You know, Chris Davis (or Jose Bautista) has passed every single drug test he's taken, and in the spirit of being innocent until proven guilty, I take him at his word." Man, that would be refreshing.
This is not that kind of column, and Rick Reilly is not that kind of sportswriter. He's going to write the easy column that has been written so many times before by so many other writers. I mean, why do something novel when you can simply crib from everybody else and be a hacky cynic in the face of common sense?
On the other hand, I suppose I can understand why Reilly wanted to ask Chris Davis to elaborate on his very plain "no" to the kid in question. But when Davis does elaborate, explaining how betrayed he felt by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, going into detail about baseball's anti-drug policy, and explaining how his swing and equipment change has helped him make better contact, Reilly basically laughs in his face, saying that Davis's response:
"carries less power with me than a mosquito's burp. I've lived through the entire steroids era. I've heard every impassioned denial from every accused baseball superstar since the Reagan Administration.... Most of them wound up being liars."
This is really the crux of Reilly's argument. Baseball's present must do penance for baseball's past, so Chris Davis has to live with the suspicions created by Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa, all of whom had retired before Davis had ever put on a Major League uniform. Look, I get the anger Reilly and others might have with Major League Baseball, even though he and they did nothing to investigate PED use while it was prevalent. But reserve that anger for people who were around while this was going on. Reserve it for McGwire, and Bonds, and Palmeiro. Reserve it for the owners and GMs who looked the other way. Reserve it for the Commissioner who sat on his hands. Reserve it for players who said nothing. And reserve it for the writers who helped them preserve that silence. Chris Davis, who debuted in 2008, is not a part of that past. He's the product of a new era where cheaters are caught, shamed, and punished. He's the product of an era of increased testing for steroids, HGH, amphetamines, and elevated testosterone. He's the product of what just might be the cleanest period in baseball since the 1950s.
Obviously, though, that's not a compelling argument for Rick Reilly, who doesn't come right out and accuse Davis himself of lying -- he's got far too little backbone and far too little integrity for that. He does say that he'll forever be suspicious because "who can prove a negative?" and "this is a guy who's spent most of his career bouncing from the bushes to the bigs. In fact, in four seasons of facing Triple-A pitching, he hit only 54 home runs. Now, in one major league season, he's on pace to hit 62? That must be some new bat." But as you probably could have guessed, Reilly is only telling part of the story here. Davis has played just parts of four seasons at AAA, totally 226 games. That's less than two full seasons. While he "only" did hit 54 homers, he did so in only 867 at-bats, slugging .609 (including .824 with 24 homers in 210 plate appearances in 2011). As a 22-year-old debuting in 2008, Davis slugged .549 with 17 homers in a half season's worth of plate appearances. Power has never been Davis's problem: contact has.
His contact has improved. While he struck out 31 percent of the time coming into 2013, he's only struck out 27 percent of the time this year, while walking more often than ever before. Yes, he's hitting the ball harder, but our own Marc Normandin, as well as Jonah Keri at Grantland, have done great work to explain exactly what's changed about Davis's approach, and why Davis has been driving balls since last September. Indeed, that's the biggest hole in Reilly's non-argument.
So sure, Rick, we can't prove a negative. We'll never know with 100 percent certainty that anyone in the game is ever clean. But there's plenty of evidence supporting Davis' assertion that he's all natural, as opposed to your baseless suspicion and unspoken accusation that's based on nothing but your misrepresentation of Davis' record and the blanket skepticism toward anyone who has the temerity to hit home runs in 2013. To believe that Chris Davis' incredible numbers are the product of PEDs, we have to believe that Davis never had power before 2012, and that those PEDs kicked in all at once last year, instantly transforming Davis into a Babe Ruth clone at the exact time he was making mechanical adjustments with his hitting coach Jim Presley. Sorry, but that seems too far-fetched for me. That's too ridiculous. That flies in the face of everything we know about Chris Davis's career. After all, Davis has passed every drug test he has taken, he's explained the mechanical changes that have helped him -- and did so before this season even began -- and I believe in the concept of "innocent until proven guilty." I take Davis at his word and I celebrate his accomplishments. You should too; it feels great.