Chris Davis undoubtedly crushing another ball. (Credit)
Is there anything better to watch than a home run? The way the pitcher puts all of his force behind a pitch that he has full confidence in to sneak by the hitter’s bat and land in the catcher’s mitt. And then, the hitter meets that forceful baseball with some extra force of his own and the bat and ball are united in a romance that not even Shakespeare could duplicate.
The ball soars through the air in that “no-doubt-about-it” kind of way, as the crowd rises to their feet to make sure they get the full opportunity to marvel. There are some great things to watch on a baseball diamond, but for me, nothing tops the thrill of a home run.
This is why we celebrate power hitters so much more than other players. Why players like David Ortiz, who may have never had a career in the MLB if it weren’t for the DH position, are more coveted than players like Rey Ordóñez, who won three gold gloves in his nine-year career. This infatuation with sluggers also contributed to the birth of the steroid era.
So if we love power hitters so much, we should probably keep our eyes on the new kids on the block. Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Giancarlo Stanton are obvious hitters who will define power for the future, but there is another player out there who is going a bit under-the-radar. It may be because he is a tad too old for the kid’s table, but either way, Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles is becoming a star right before our eyes.
The American League player of the first month of the 2013 season has taken the league by storm by not only mashing home runs, but also preforming well in almost every hitting statistical category out there. He ranks in the top-10 in the MLB in home runs, runs batted in, walks, slugging percentage, and OPS (on base percentage + slugging percentage), while also maintaining a .300+ average. His 10 home runs and 31 RBI are definitely impressive, but what has caught my eye are his high average and low strikeout total.
What makes his relatively low strikeout total significant is that like most power hitters, Davis has struggled with strikeouts in the past. Last year was his breakout season, but he still ranked tied for 6th in baseball with 169 Ks. His strikeout woes are partly what caused him to take so long to breakout. In his second season with the Rangers, the team that originally drafted him in 2006, he totaled 150 strikeouts in only 391 at bats.
To put that in perspective, last season, he had 515 at bats. Since Davis is striking out less this season, that means that there are more opportunities to put the ball in play and with more opportunities to put the ball in play, that usually translates into a higher average. Davis’ .307 average can attest to that.
But what mechanically has he done to transform from an “all-or-nothing” hitter to an “all-or-something” hitter? First, I must introduce you to Davis’ swing, which really is a thing of beauty even when he does not make contact. His swing is something of an anomaly. It is very peaceful and smooth, but the ball absolutely flies off of his bat like he is hitting a tennis ball with an aluminum bat.
It is unlike that of Yoenis Cespedes, who swings the bat like he is trying to literally tear the cover off the ball. It is more like that of Josh Hamilton and the way he effortlessly swings the bat. But there are some significant differences between Hamilton’s swing and Davis’. Hamilton has a slightly wider base than Davis does and therefore, he uses his legs as a power source more than Davis does.
That is what is so amazing about Davis. He uses his sheer upper body strength as a major power source, which is pretty unconventional. This is what makes his swings look so effortless and why his home runs often look like fly ball outs immediately off of the bat.
There are not many power hitters who lean on their upper body for power as much as Davis, but Adam Dunn is definitely one that comes to mind. They have similar swings, but even Dunn drives his hips throughout the entire swing, while Davis does not. SportsCenter anchors like to call Dunn “country strong,” but Davis, a Texas native, may be taking that title away from him. The comparisons between Davis and Dunn are striking, but Davis is proving to us that he can be a complete power hitter unlike Dunn, who has amassed a measly .238 average throughout his career.
So, back to our question: What has Davis done to eradicate his strikeout woes? The answers are simple and pretty much the same for any hitter who makes the transformation. Davis is hitting with more patience at the plate and his plate coverage has grown tremendously. According to Baseball Prospectus, the way to get Davis out last season, like most young power hitters, was to pitch him low and away. Young power hitters know their role and try to hit a home run on every pitch, but it is very difficult for even the best hitters to hit a home run on a pitch that is low and away. A young power hitter who employs his normal “all-or-nothing” swing will miss that pitch entirely the majority of the time.
With Davis’ increased patience at the plate, he is able to get himself in better counts and therefore see better pitches. That will definitely limit strikeout totals, but the major reason is his newfound plate coverage. Instead of trying to hit low and outside pitches out of the park, he is taking something off of his swing and hitting singles and doubles.
Nothing infuriates a pitcher more than facing a hitter that will clobber the ball if you throw it inside, but still has the finesse to hit the outside pitch, as well. Davis’ ability to cover more of the plate will produce more mistake pitches because the pitcher will have the opposite field single from the last at bat fresh in his mind. And this will result with even more home runs.
The question is whether he will be able to maintain his patience and low strikeout totals for an entire season. I have faith that this April was not just a mirage. There is no doubt that his .307 average will drop and his home run pace will decline, but Davis’ new approach at the plate should prove to us that neither will be by a lot. A .280 season with 40 home runs is easily in reach for the Baltimore slugger, and that is why Chris Davis is the new slugger in town.
By: Matt Levine