The Major League Baseball single season record for most strikeouts by a hitter is 223, set by Mark Reynolds in 2009. If Chris Davis has anything to say about it, that record will be a distant memory come the final day of the season. The Orioles first baseman, only two years removed from hitting 53 home runs, is on pace for a whopping 272 strikeouts. So far this season, Davis has struck out in 40.3 percent of his plate appearances. At his worst, Reynolds whiffed only 35.4 percent of the time.
Davis is turning into Mark Reynolds. He hits home runs and strikes out. That’s about it, but at least Davis plays a better first base than Reynolds. The reality is that Chris Davis is not the hitter who hit 53 home runs in 2013, but can he still be a valuable asset to the Orioles?
Davis has never been known for an ability to limit his strikeouts. Even in his near-MVP 2013 season, he nearly joined the 200-strikeout club with 199. The strikeouts could be overlooked, however, when he was slugging .634. This season, when Davis has put the ball in play, the results have been very good. Seven of his 14 base hits this year have gone for extra bases. Unfortunately, he is just not making enough contact.
The Orioles simply cannot afford to bat Davis in the heart of their order any longer than they have to. With J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters out, and Steve Pearce struggling even worse than Davis, the Orioles really have no alternatives for their cleanup spot. The strikeouts have not been an isolated event with Davis this year, nor does there appear to be any sign of improvement.
There have only been three games this year in which Davis did not strike out. He has struck out three times in a game twice and has worn the Golden Sombrero two other times. Interestingly enough, in the two games in which Davis struck out three times, he is 4-for-10 with a home run and five runs batted in. Go figure.
I see no end in sight to the endless string of empty walks back to the dugout for Chris Davis this season. After looking lost at the plate all last season and batting only .196, he still looks lost. Davis is one of the most vexing hitters in the league, with an ability to look absolutely befuddled and swing half-heartedly one pitch, only to unleash a home run on the very next with a swing that can only be described as “Baseball Porn.”
There are some truly impressive home runs in that clip. When he is on, Davis is capable of turning any pitch into a home run. That, unfortunately for Orioles fans, is not what we are seeing from Davis anymore. He is lost at the plate. That is the only obvious answer. He has not been pitched differently year-to-year. He does not chase an inordinate amount of pitches outside of the zone. What Davis is doing this year is swinging and missing. A lot. He has made contact on only 73.4 percent of pitches he swings at inside the strike zone, down from 79.6 percent in 2013.
Davis has actually seen the most fastballs this season of his career — 41.4 percent of the pitches thrown his way have been fastballs. In 2013, Davis was death to fastballs, with a wFA — fastball runs above average — of 14.2. This season, that number is -0.4. Yikes.
I wrote a piece for Baseball Essential earlier this Spring detailing Davis’s lack of aggression at the plate in 2014. That trend has continued so far this season, and I believe it to be the primary factor in his alarming strikeout rate. Davis has put himself in an 0-1 count in 39 of his 67 plate appearances this season. In those plate appearances, he is batting a robust .167 with 20 empty trips back to the dugout. There is an old adage that says the best pitch in baseball is strike one, and Davis is repeatedly giving it to pitchers.
At this point of the season, it is too early to give up completely on Chris Davis, but the Orioles should be concerned. Davis cannot be counted on to simply make contact in a clutch situation. Late in a game, with a runner on third and less than two outs, a manager craves the chance to send up his cleanup hitter. If I were managing the Orioles, Chris Davis would be the last player I want at the dish in a crucial situation where all you want is bat-on-ball. Davis will continue to hit home runs and doubles for the Orioles, but his strikeouts have become too much to justify penciling him into the middle of the order.
There will ultimately come a time when the Orioles can no longer stomach all of Davis’s strikeouts. If he remains on pace for nearly 300 strikeouts, he will not bat fourth or fifth much longer. He is producing more consistently than last season, but the strikeouts continue to erode his value as a middle of the order hitter. If Davis continues on this boom-or-bust path, his bat needs to be sent to the lower third of the order. He will still bring value to the Orioles lineup, but Chris Davis cannot be counted on in clutch situations until he reins in his strikeout rate.