The Orioles scored 20 runs in their 2-1 series victory over the Rays this week. Chris Davis drove in 11 himself and scored four more. His .971 wOBA — 7-for-11, three home runs, three doubles, a walk and a hit by pitch in 13 plate appearances — through the season’s first three games gives him the league lead (Tyler Flowers‘s .816 checks in at second place).
Davis now has 10 home runs through his last 10 regular season games — he hit seven home runs in games 156 through 161 last season before an oh-fer in the finale. Davis has kept his fire burning strong by mashing more than just mistake pitches. The Rays attacked the one point in the strike zone he doesn’t mash — the lower-outside corner. And that’s the most impressive part of Davis’s series — even when Rays pitchers hit their spots, Davis was able to not just make contact, but blast those pitches for doubles and home runs.
Davis’s power has never been in question. Even in his limited exposure with the Rangers — 953 plate appearances over parts of four seasons — Davis hit 42 home runs and posted a .197 ISO. Of his 219 hits, 95 (43.3 percent) went for extra bases. He just didn’t make contact. It was more of the same with Baltimore last year — he struck out 30.1 percent of the time and posted a .231 ISO with 33 home runs in 562 plate appearances — it was just the first time a team let him do it on a full-time basis.
Davis hardly has any weaknesses in the strike zone. Break the strike zone into 3-by-3 grid and Davis posted a .297 ISO or better in seven of the nine zones, according to Baseball Prospectus. The only ones he didn’t were down-and-away (.133 in 45 at-bats) and up-and-away (.067 in 15 at-bats). So where are you going to attack?
The Rays made a point all series of attacking Chris Davis either down, away or both.
Graphic from catcher’s viewpoint
Part of the plan was a matter of pitching styles. All three Rays starters — David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, and Roberto Hernandez — primarily throw ground balls, and Price and Hernandez were both over a 50 percent ground ball rate last season. Price is the only one with a fastball suited for high cheese — and indeed, he did go upstairs a few times to Davis and induced a pair of swinging strikes. Hellickson and Hernandez, though, feed most lefties a steady diet of low-and-away changeups and sinkers, and the approach with Davis wasn’t much different.
The biggest clusters come mid-height and just outside the strike zone as well as in the lower-outside corner. Considering the propensity for umpires to give the outside strike against lefties, these are two generally safe areas to attack Davis for strikes. His ISO in both zones is relatively low — .072 and .198 career, respectively. He swings often — over 60 percent of the time on over 100 pitches in each zone last year — and he whiffs roughly 20 percent of the time.
Davis’s most impressive hits of the series came from these zones. On Tuesday, Davis crushed this pitch from Hellickson for a 422 foot home run to left field:
The pitch finished some 5.5 inches off the physical plate and about 2.1 inches outside the outer edge of the rulebook strike zone, and yet Davis absolutely hammered it.
Yesterday, Davis lined this pitch from Hernandez into left field for a two-run double:
Davis didn’t get much lift on the 91 MPH sinker, but he hit it like a bullet, with enough speed to split the outfielders and get to the wall for a double and score a runner from first.
Surprisingly, the Rays didn’t attack Davis much up in the zone or above the zone, as these are the areas where he’s been supremely whiff-prone. For his career, Davis has missed on over 50 percent of his above-zone swings (95-for-184). Davis only saw five pitches above the zone from Rays pitchers this week, and true to form he swung through two of them. But he only swung and missed four total times on 48 pitches for an 8.3 percent swinging strike rate, exactly half his 16.6 percent career rate.
Of course, Davis will almost certainly start swinging and missing more — although the age 27 season is often a breakout year for players, it’s hard to imagine Davis slashing his whiff rate in half in even the rosiest scenario. Even his 90th percentile PECOTA projection includes a 28.2 percent strikeout rate.
But the remarkable nature of Davis’s series was two-fold: not only was he making contact with these tough pitches, he was hitting them with great power, something usually reserved for pitches over the plate. This is what I’ll be watching for with Davis as he carries his hot streak back to Camden Yards to face Minnesota this weekend and beyond. Davis has already shown exceptional power even during the darkest stretches of his career. If he can extend his power zones even further out, by taking advantage of outside pitches with opposite field power, he’ll become an even bigger headache then the already-formidable one he was in 2012.