Back in early April, I was in the Rays’ clubhouse with other local media talking to some of the pitchers before the game about some of the news items from around the league. The topic shifted to the hot start Chris Davis had gotten off too. I rattled off a few numbers about how he had done dating back to last season which raised the eyebrows of a few of them. Jeremy Hellickson, casually playing around on his iPad days after giving up one of Davis’s early bombs, did not even look up when he softly said, “that’ll even out. It always does.”
What if it doesn’t?
In that opening series against Tampa Bay, Davis hit three home runs, drove in 11 runs, and was retired just five times in 13 plate appearances. In the six games the Rays have faced Davis since that series, they’ve held him to seven hits and two walks in 37 plate appearances while striking him out eight times. While Davis’s success has evened out a bit against Tampa Bay, it certainly has not against the rest of the league.
Davis heads into the break with a .315/.392/.717 slash line with 27 doubles, 37 home runs, 93 runs driven in through his first 95 games of the season. Those counting totals would be generous projections for an entire season for the slugger let alone 95 games. In fact, RotoWire projected Davis to hit .267 with 30 home runs and 89 RBI before the season.
For anyone to think that Davis is a half-season wonder and may cool off over the final 67 games of the season, think again. If we go back to the start of the second half of 2012, Chris Davis has played a full 162 game season worth of games. His slash line in that time period - .296/.369/.639 with 56 home runs in 669 plate appearances. He currently has a .402 Isolated Power score which puts him in the extreme upper echelon of power hitters as only Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa have ever had that kind of score in a season of baseball. We have enough of a sample size to fully legitimize what Davis has done and the fact he’s a changed man at the plate.
Simply put, full playing time has suited the slugger very well. Here is how his numbers stack up over the past five seasons:
After seeing inconsistent playing time in Texas, he has flourished with the Orioles who have left him in the lineup and let him do his thing. The strikeouts will always be there for Davis, but he has doubled his walk rate in just two seasons. That increased patience shows up in other areas as well as the percentage of pitches he is chasing vastly improved. Two seasons ago, Davis chased 42 percent of the pitches pitchers threw at him out of the strike zone. This season, he has chased 30 percent as the league is throwing him a career-low 61 percent strikes.
A big part of his success has been his ability to hit the ball with authority to the opposite field. Through 2011 and 2012, Davis hit for average the other way as he hit .403 with a 1.166 OPS as he hit 16 doubles and 11 home runs in 136 plate appearances that involved hitting the ball to the opposite field. This season, he has had 55 plate appearances involving balls hit to the opposite field, but has already hit 12 home runs that way with seven doubles and has hit .527 with a 1.805 OPS. He is able to hit so well to the opposite field because he stays back and trusts his power. Of his 37 home runs this season, only 15 have come against fastballs so he not getting these results cheating on pitch types.
If not for the incredible year Davis is having, Josh Donaldson would be getting more attention for his own improvements. Donaldson enters the break with a .310/.379/.522 line with 40 walks, 40 extra-base hits, and 61 runs driven in. Not bad for a guy that RotoWire projected to hit .256 with 16 home runs and 64 runs driven in. This, coming from a player who was twice sent to the minor leagues last season.
Donaldson has put up impressive numbers in a park that is not conducive to offense. He has doubled his walk rate from last season while reducing his strikeout rate from 21 percent down to 17 percent. Last season, he chased one-third of the pitches thrown at him but has reduced that rate from 33 percent to 25 percent. After beginning the 2012 season with 100 plate appearances without a walk, Donaldson has gone on to hit .303/.371/.511 in 585 plate appearances.
In both cases, we have surprise hitters that are having career seasons, who are more than just single-season surprises. Davis and Donaldson have both made changes to their approaches that have led to more productive at bats and better results. Neither player should be described as a fluke with over 500 plate appearances of sustained success under their belts. It is just a shame only one of them is going to Citi Field for the All-Star Game to showcase their skills under the national spotlight.