Thursday, April 18, 2019

A Tale of Two Davis’

By Steve Brenna

Three weeks into the 2019 season and I couldn't help but take note of two players who share the same name making headlines, albeit for polar opposite reasons. One is a former star who not long ago was among the premier sluggers in the game. The other has now assumed that role. One is leading the majors in home runs, and the other just snapped the longest hitless streak in baseball history.

Since the start of the 2012 season, rarely has the name Davis been missing from the AL home run leaderboard. From 2012 to 2016, Baltimore's Chris Davis clubbed 197 big flies, including a major league best 53 in his 2013 All-Star campaign. Davis again led all of baseball in homers with 47 in 2015, prompting the Orioles to award him a 7-year, $161 million contract prior to the 2016 season.

Initially, the deal looked like a decent investment for the O's. In spite of a .221 batting average and a historic 219 strikeouts, Davis still managed 38 homers, 84 RBIs and a respectable OPS+ of 110 in 2016. Low average, high strikeouts, and a lot of home runs. That's just Chris Davis, right?

Then, the bottom fell out.

In 2017, the normally durable Davis appeared in just 128 games, his average slipped further to .215, and he still managed to strike out nearly 200 times despite missing 34 games. His OPS fell 60 points, dropping his OPS+ to a below-league average 96. But there were some injury issues, and at age 31 still plenty of reason to believe Davis would bounce back the following season.

That would not be the case in 2018 however, as Davis regressed even further. He once again appeared in just 128 games, but this time his reduced playing time was simply due to lack of performance. He again struck out over 190 times, and his .168 batting average set the major league record for the lowest ever by a qualifying player. His on-base and slugging percentages plummeted, and his final OPS+ was 49, 50% below replacement level.

It was one of the worst seasons in baseball history, but the icing on the cake began on September 14th, 2018. Davis would go 1-4 in an 8-6 loss that day and not record another hit for the rest of the season, going 0-18 before mercifully being shut down by Orioles manager Buck Showalter.

It would be nearly 7 months to the day before Davis would record another hit, an incredible span of 63 total plate appearances and 54 official at-bats. Thanks to four hits in his last three games, Davis is now slashing .089/.196/.200. He is still owed over $100 million by Baltimore.

Good grief.

In an ironic twist, however, the calamitous downfall of Chris Davis has been mirrored almost exactly by the meteoric rise of Khris Davis on the other side of the country. Since the start of the 2016 season, Khrush leads all of baseball with 143 home runs. He's launched 40 or more in each of the past three seasons, becoming the first Oakland Athletic to ever accomplish the feat.

He led all of baseball with 48 homers in 2018, and appears well on his way to another power packed year, with an MLB-best 10 round trippers as of this writing. Should he once again reach the 40 homer plateau, he would become just the ninth player in major league history to hit 40 or more in four consecutive seasons. The exclusive list includes four current Hall of Famers (Ruth, Kiner, Snider, Griffey Jr.) as well as Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez. Davis would be the first to accomplish the feat since Adam Dunn blasted 40 or more from 2004-2008.

Since arriving in Oakland, Davis has posted a higher slugging percentage than both Nelson Cruz and Bryce Harper over the same span, and trails Giancarlo Stanton by just 7 points (.540 to .547). Per 162 games, Davis has averaged 49 homers and 122 RBI since the start of 2016 with an OPS+ of 131. By comparison, the vaunted slugger Stanton has averaged 46 home runs and 113 RBI per 162.

In spite of rising to the top of the major league slugging ranks, the soft-spoken Davis remains a relative unknown to most of America. Playing his home games in front of scant crowds for a scarcely covered team like the A's certainly plays a role, and there is also little argument Davis is a one-dimensional player with a notoriously poor throwing arm. That said, this guy is putting balls in the seats at a rapid pace.

Will he maintain the 80 homer pace he's currently riding? Let's stay on the safe side and bet against that. But 50 dingers is certainly not out of the question.

If the baseball world abroad does eventually tune in to the Khrush Show, the most interesting stat to track this season may not be his homer total. Davis' average currently sits at .270, 23 points higher than he finished last season. It's 23 points higher than his 2017 average, and his 2016 average, and let's not forget about 2015. Yes, Davis has finished the season with a .247 average each of the past four seasons, a statistical anomaly so rare I need to upgrade my Baseball-Reference membership if I want to see if that's ever occurred before.

Consistency, thy name is Khrush.

As for the left-handed, slightly older Davis, one could say he's currently fighting for his baseball life. While his contract may already be a sunk cost for the O's, at some point a player's overwhelmingly poor performance has to become so glaring there truly is no way to justify keeping him in the line up, or on the roster. For Chris' sake, I hope he's able to return to form as a serviceable big leaguer. But if not, there will still be a Davis at the top of the tater charts.

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