Futility, Thy Name Is Chris

There was a brief moment just after Chris Davis stroked a 0-1 offering from Yusmeiro Petit towards left field where Orioles fans thought that maybe, just maybe, history would be averted.

It was not to be. The hard-hit ball fell harmlessly into the glove of Athletics’ outfielder Robbie Grossman, and Chris Davis forlornly left the field, the new owner of baseball’s least-desired place in history.

0-for-47. 47 times up to the plate, and 47 miserable walks back to the dugout.

Sad Chris Davis 2
When you just can’t catch a break; Chris Davis strikes out against the Yankees during the Orioles first homestand of 2019.

 

This was not a fall from grace. This was a lodestone plummeting at terminal velocity. Just six years ago, Davis led all of baseball with 53 home runs and finished third in AL MVP voting behind Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout. He struck out a ton, but his immense power and solid batting average covered up the holes in his swing.

After a suspension for amphetamines cut short his 2014 season, he came back swinging in 2015. The batting average fell to .262 and the strikeout numbers climbed, but the Baltimore first baseman still slugged a league-leading 47 homers. As a result, the Orioles paid him handsomely, signing Davis to a 7-year, $161-million contract.

Since then, Davis has slashed .199/.296/.391 with 619 strikeouts and a WAR of -0.6.

Sports fans are always quick with their criticisms, but Davis seems to have hit a strange plateau. In the Orioles home opener on Thursday, he was greeted by a chorus of boos from the Baltimore crowd. On Monday night, though, as Davis crept closer to the ignominious 0-for-47 mark, the crowd rallied around him. Being awful is something to be mocked; being historically bad is something to pity.

In our capitalistic, take-the-money-and-run world, Davis will turn out just fine. He’s already earned nearly $100-million, and with payment deferments he’ll make just under $200-million when all is said and done. He has, in that respect, had a wildly successful baseball career.

Good Chris Davis
In happier times, Chris Davis was the driving force behind a perennially-good Baltimore team.

Yet the value of the contract has only amplified the agony of Davis’s failure. He knows how badly he’s played–he doesn’t need fans to remind him of his woeful statistics. He can look up at the scoreboard every time he stands in the batter’s box and see the bright .000 next to his name.

Baseball is a strange mix of two worlds. On is the cut-and-dry, black-and-white numbers in the box score. By that measure, Chris Davis is the worst player in the Major Leagues, and has been for the last two seasons.

While engrossed in sabermetrics, we often miss the human element to the story. Davis worked hard to make it to the big leagues, grinding away in the Texas minor league system until he found his easy power stroke. In his time in the majors, he’s seen the game change. He faces the shift on more than 90% of his at-bats, by far the most of any major leaguer. His swing looks scared, tentative, as if he’s trying to aim the ball around the shift rather than squaring up to the pitch and hitting it hard.

Chris Davis 3
Now? As Chris Davis confessed to SI’s Stephanie Apstein, “I have no clue what I’m doing at the plate.”

On Monday night, he did hit the ball hard. His historic line-out in the fifth inning left his bat at 103.5 mph, per Statcast, leading to a .580 xBA. His other two lineouts were both hit harder than 90 mph. We can argue that, thanks to advancements in data collection, the defense had him played perfectly. We can also say that he was terribly unlucky.

Chris Davis’s story, like baseball, is one of multitudes. He is an objectively bad player right now, and even with his bloated contract the Orioles have to consider cutting him and opening up the spot on the roster for someone who can actually get a hit.

As he swung at and missed a changeup in the dirt from Fernando Rodney in the bottom of the eighth, Davis doubled-over, shoulders slumped, and trudged back to the dugout. With every strikeout, lineout, groundout, and flyout, Chris Davis feels the crushing weight of history magnifying his failure. No amount of money can soften that blow.

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