Chris Davis and the Brutal Life of a Late-Career Slugger

The Orioles will not be hosting a FanFest this year; the team has indicated it will be “looking into other ways of connecting with fans,” according to the Baltimore Sun.

Perhaps there’s just isn’t really much to say right now. Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Zack Britton, Jonathan Schoop, Buck Showalter, and all the team’s other recognizable names have been shipped out or moved on. But Chris Davis remains, and he found a big way to connect with Baltimore this offseason, as he and his wife, Jill, recently donated $3 million to the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital. While talking to reporters, Davis said that the Orioles’ reshaping their franchise in the front office and the dugout had already made him feel more “hopeful.” Where in previous winters, he’d set about his workouts with motivation but no direction, there now seems to be a plan, devised by him and manager Brandon Hyde to keep him moving toward a goal.

And yet, it seems like we’re looking at a winter of hard truths for the Orioles slugger. Davis will turn 34 years old in the middle of spring training. He’s on a well-known and oft-despised seven-year deal worth $161 million that is scheduled to end in 2022. Even better-known are his struggles, which have seen him drop from an All-Star and Silver Slugger in 2013 to asking for the game ball after breaking an 0-for-54 hitless streak this past April.

At this stage in his development, he’s developed. The swing either works or it doesn’t. Once a hitter gets some experience and establishes his mechanics, his later years are the work of mental tweaks rather than physical ones. Sure, older players can make adjustments, but Davis is apparently not going to do that:

“… Davis doesn’t plan to make dramatic mechanical changes in 2020. He said the Orioles asked whether he would be interested in attending a private hitting school this offseason, but he wonders how much he could change at his age.”

The lifespan of a slugger is explosive and brutal. For many, those two-to-four years in their late 20s and early 30s is how they make their bacon, and then they spend a decent chunk of their twilight years barely able to sizzle. They strike out a lot. The lucky ones get walked a bunch. The shift stifles their menace.

Did I mention they strike out a lot? Davis is at the same point at which many of his contemporaries have just been unable to get around on the ball as well as they used to in a league that has figured them out. He has been victimized by the employment of defensive shifts that darken the right side of his spray chart, leading many to wonder: What do you when you’re the last player left from a memorable core, when you can’t hit the ball as hard or as far or often at all, and when you don’t plan on making any serious adjustments to your swing at the ripe old age of 34?

We don’t know. No one knows. If somebody does know, and they let Chris Davis flail through the 2018 season without telling him, they are a bad person. All we can really do from here is look at some Chris Davises of the recent past as they entered their age 34 seasons and see if there is indeed hope at this stage of the game.

Adam Dunn had led the league in strikeouts four times already by the time he was 34 in 2014, setting an AL record with 222 in 2012. But with his All-Star year behind him and retirement in his sights, Dunn wasn’t making adjustments at the plate. By this point, it was more that the White Sox were making adjustments around him. Jose Abreu and Paul Konerko were taking up reps at his position, and Dunn, the White Sox said, would be limited to designated hitter duty against right-handed pitchers. So Chicago’s answer to the decline of their slugger was to simply limit the amount of Adam Dunn that was coming out of their lineup.

Even with this caveat, Dunn got 511 plate appearances that year, striking out at the same rate as the year before (31.1%) and watching his ISO drop below .200 for only the second time in his career. He went from hitting fly balls about half the time to a little less than half the time, and the percentage of them that left the stadium, 18.6%, was lower than it had ever been outside of his miserable 2012 season and his rookie year in 2002. His age-34 season was, after a trade to Oakland, the last of his career. So if you’re looking to Dunn to be an example of a slugger making it work at 34, you know, you can look away; Dunn’s attitude and likability in the clubhouse were said to be among his finest qualities in his final season.

Then there was sweet, sweet Ryan Howard. Howard had led the league in strikeouts one time (199) before his 34th year, but that was back in 2007, when he’d also hit 47 home runs and finished fifth in MVP voting. By 2014, he struck out 190 times with about half the taters of 2007 and an OPS almost .300 points lower. At this point, like Dunn, it became a question as to who Howard’s numbers were even for. The Phillies knew they were going nowhere at the time, and Howard was, much like Davis, contractually along for the ride with a five-year, $125 million extension he’d received in 2010. Any teams that could use some kind of slugging help were not interested in paying what became about $44,000 for every strike. Therefore Howard, too, offers us little more than the tale of a once prominent slugger whom the league had figured out, going about his business as positively as he could before the end of his time in red pinstripes.

Boy, this is grim. Can’t we talk about the other seasons of these sluggers’ careers? The ones with all the majestic dingers and the Home Run Derby trophies? No? What about other Chris Davis-types, like Richie Sexson? He was out of the big leagues before he turned 34. Brandon Moss? Him too. Danny Tartabull? He broke his foot with a foul ball and made it into three games when he was 34.

How about Mike Napoli?

Ah. Here we go.

Napoli was 34 in 2016, a year after a disappointing campaign in Boston. He’d be getting the first-base starts in Cleveland for this trip around the sun, with limited projections lowered based on the previous year’s output. He wound up hitting his age in home runs (34, obviously), the highest single-season total of his career (one was 460 feet) and striking out at a perfectly reasonable 30.1% clip with a 111 wRC+ in 150 games.

The Indians wanted right-handed power against left-handed pitching, as well as positional versatility (first base, catcher, outfield, and DH). Napoli slugged .450 vs. lefties in 2016 with a .118 wRC+ and .189 ISO. He had career-highs in games, plate appearances, hits, home runs, and walks, and a lighter baseball made from the wisps of a cloud isn’t going to be the reason for all of that. He feasted on fastballs on the inner third of the plate and only ran into a slump in the season’s last month and a half when pitchers finally started throwing him change-ups low and away. Napoli got on base less in 2016, but he walloped the ball a lot more. He was a slugger. That’s the kind of the point of him.

So it’s Napoli, then, who provides us the beefy slugger model to follow at age 34. What did he do that season that Davis could emulate? Well, he hit the ball harder; 3 mph harder off the bat, to be exact. That turned into more fly balls (45.1%) than he’d hit since 2007, when he’d only played in 75 games, and his highest percentage of fly balls becoming home runs (20.5%) in the last four years. How did he hit the ball harder? Well, part of it was his career as a big league hitter. But also, maybe you heard about the baseball?

The 34-year-olds who top the statistical charts are typically names you know. Mark McGwire has most of the slugging records. Lou Gehrig has a couple. Ichiro has a few based on longevity and speed. Just last year, Robinson Chirinos of the Astros was hit by more pitches than any other 34-year-old to play the game. But there is always a lesson to be learned from history, and perhaps Chris Davis’s can be learned from six-time All-Star and Hall of Famer Earl Averill.

Averill didn’t start in the big leagues until he was 27, at a time when life expectancy for men in the United States was just shy of 56. When he was 34 in 1936, he led baseball with 232 hits and 15 triples and was named an All-Star for the fourth of six straight years, finishing third in the MVP tallies. A late bloomer, Averill told the L.A. Times in 1975 upon his induction into Cooperstown that his productivity later in his career came from a helpful discovery:

“You know, I played five or six seasons before I found there were three fields to hit the ball to, not just one. They were using the Ted Williams shift on me… long before Ted was ever in the major leagues. The third baseman would play clean over to shortstop when I came up. I was too hard-headed to change for a long time.”

Not everybody gets to play in an era with a weightless baseball or unchecked steroid-guzzling. Sometimes you just have to be willing to change for a changing game. There’s a chance Chris Davis and his manager have a plan in place to get the slugger back on pace for an age 34 season for the books.

But maybe it’s not too late to consider a shift in mechanics.

Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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Six Ten
4 years ago

“it became a question as to who Howard’s numbers were even for.”

That line has me wondering: is there such a thing as a DNP (manager’s decision) contract clause? There are escalators for minimum plate appearances, but is the opposite allowed? Because otherwise, why not release him? You’re paying the money one way or the other, but maybe he’s useful somewhere else as an occasional bench bat, and either way, you get to work out new guys and see what else is possible. Your team is bad, why keep running out a beloved veteran to be depressing?

4 years ago
Reply to  Six Ten

Teams have problems understanding the notion of a sunk cost.