If there’s one player whose 2019 season is off to a more conspicuously inauspicious start than Nationals reliever Trevor Rosenthal, who has yet to retire a batter through four appearances (including one on Sunday), it’s Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, who has yet to record a hit. Like Rosenthal, Davis’ run of futility has actually carried over from his previous season. He’s now approaching the major league record for consecutive hitless at-bats by a non-pitcher, held by Eugenio Velez (0-for-46 in 2010-11), and is putting the rebuilding Orioles in an awkward position given his huge contract, which could become the largest sunk cost in major league history.
Already known for his all-or-nothing extremes, which included him hitting 53 homers in a season (2013) and striking out 219 times (2016), the now-33-year-old Davis appeared to find the bottom last year, when he hit .168/.243/.296 for a 46 wRC+ while striking out in 36.8% of his plate appearances, numbers that all ranked dead last among the majors’ 140 qualifying hitters. Whether it was mechanical flaws, eyesight troubles, medication issues (he has a therapeutic use exemption for an ADHD drug, an issue that led to a 25-game suspension in 2014, when it wasn’t properly addressed), or mental struggles, Davis and the coaching staff weren’t able to find the answer to his problems. Including slightly subpar defense (-1.7 UZR), his -3.1 WAR tied for the majors’ sixth-lowest mark since 1901. He closed the season while stuck in a 1-for-39 skid, with a September 14 double off the White Sox’s James Shields his only hit after his second plate appearance on September 5. He went hitless in his final 21 at-bats, with 14 strikeouts (he walked twice and was hit by a pitch within that span). In an act of mercy, the Orioles — who were on their way to 115 losses, the third-highest total of the post-1960 expansion era — didn’t play him in their final eight games, preventing Davis from digging an even deeper hole.
Both executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter got the axe after that disasterpiece of a season. Incoming executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde have given no indication of being ready to part ways with Davis, who entered the season with four years and $92 million remaining on the seven-year, $161 million contract he signed in January 2016. He was in the Opening Day lineup against the Yankees and has started seven of the team’s nine games (and come off the bench once), going 0-for-23 with 13 strikeouts and four walks (one, inexplicably, was intentional). Here’s where his combined 0-for-44 sits:
|5T||Luis Aparicio||Red Sox||5/20/1971||5/31/1971||44||0|
The list of players is quite a mixed bag. Campbell, Gil, Keough, and Velez all finished their patchy major league careers — 428 games or fewer — with WARs below zero. So did Bergen, a catcher famously known for his futility with the stick; he owns both the lowest WAR (-16.2) of all time and the lowest wRC+ (22) of any player with at least 2,000 PA (he had 3,288 across 11 seasons). At the other end of the spectrum, Bernazard (who holds the record for consecutive plate appearances without a hit at 57, six more than Davis), Counsell, and Zeile each spent at least a decade in the majors as solid players. Aparicio, a slick-fielding shortstop, even recovered to make the AL All-Star team in the same season of his slump and was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame. He and Davis are the only players to go through this wringer and make an All-Star team at some point in their careers.
That only hints at how far Davis has fallen, and how strange his fall-off has been. In major league history, only 15 players have a larger gap between their best season in terms of WAR and their worst (minimum 300 PA), most of whom reached their nadirs either very early in their careers, or close to (if not at) the end of the line:
|Rk||Player||Max WAR||Age at Max||Min WAR||Age at Min||WAR Dif||Age Dif|
|15||Ken Griffey Jr.+||9.7||26||-0.6||36||10.3||10|
Obviously, the Hall of Famers (who make up three-quarters of the list) had further to fall than most players, and most of them did so late in their careers. The only players from the list who scraped bottom after their early 20s but before their mid-30s were Ruth (whose 1925 season was the year of his infamous “bellyache,” which cost him the first 41 games of the year, was described as an “intestinal abscess,” and may have been a severe case of venereal disease), Stirnweiss (a war-time star who got old before his time), Sisler (who was burdened by simultaneously managing the hapless St. Louis Browns), Foxx (who was battling alcoholism and sinus problems), Santo (who was battling diabetes and changes in league and position) and Davis, who seems too young for this sort of thing to be happening — yet here we are.
As MLB.com’s Mike Petriello pointed out on Twitter, Davis has been falling off in other areas of his game besides the plate:
Chris Davis still doesn't have a hit. 0-for-40.
Whatever's happened, it's showing on bases/defense too.
Sprint Speed has dropped… (15-18)
DRS has dropped (15-18)
If the theory is bat speed is gone, that seems to track elsewhere.
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) April 7, 2019
Speaking of Statcast, within the very early numbers there’s not a ton of optimism to be had, but to be fair, we’re not close to a useful sample size; he has 10 batted balls, where 40 is the point of stabilization, so noting that his average exit velocity of 89.1 mph is nearly identical to last year, or that his xwOBA has fallen from .272 to .230, doesn’t mean much. Of the four hard-hit balls off his bat (95 mph or higher), two were fairly routine plays for the outfield (one was classified as a line drive but barely required Blue Jays right fielder Billy McKinney to move), one required Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner to get on his horse, and one was a hot grounder to first base with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of Saturday night’s game, Davis’ highest-leverage plate appearance of the year.
Even at 100.2 mph off the bat, that was fairly routine stuff for Greg Bird to handle. And anyway, while the odd hard-hit ball may put Davis on the board before he claims the hitless record, it still doesn’t cover for the drastic spike in swing-and-miss in his game. While we might overlook Davis’ 48.1% strikeout rate this year as the product of a small sample size (27 PA, for a stat where 60 PA is the point of stability), it’s also true that he’s whiffed at a 44.3% rate dating back to last September 1 (79 PA), which is well beyond even his near-record full-season rate.
Hyde, a rookie manager, has searched for positives amid Davis’ struggles, and expressed optimism. Per the Baltimore Sun’s Peter Schmuck, he said after the team’s April 4 home opener:
“I’m seeing a guy who’s giving a great effort … It’s just not happening right now,” Hyde said. “I know we wanted to get him off to a good start. It’s not the start, I’m sure, that he wanted to get off to. But I’m going to continue to play him, and I’m going to continue to support him and find the right matchups for him to get him off the schneid here a little bit early. But he’s battling and he’s being a great teammate and not taking his offense to his defense.”
Via the Sun’s Jon Meoli, that same day:
“I think he’s searching a little bit,” Hyde said. “I thought he’s taken a couple good swings. He just miss-hit a ball here. He just miss-hit a ball in New York. We’ve faced some really good pitching. I love the fact that he’s playing great defense for us. He made a play on the line [Tuesday] night.
“When you come out of the gates a little slow, I think it’s natural to press a little bit. I don’t see that in him right now. I just see a guy that’s trying to take good [at-bats] at the plate, and I want to believe it’s going to come around.”
Meoli observed that Davis is chasing pitches out of the zone less often, which still holds true (20.3% this year, compared to 29.9% last year). He’s also seeing 4.52 pitches per plate appearance, up from 4.19 last year, but so far, the patience hasn’t yielded any fruit. Speaking of patience, Orioles fans didn’t even make it through the aforementioned opener without booing him for striking out three times in a row against the Yankees’ James Paxton, then cheering when Hanser Albeto pinch-hit for him. On Sunday, with the Orioles getting thrashed 11-3 and needed a position player to pitch, Hyde opted for Alberto over Davis, who threw two scoreless innings in a 2012 game against the Red Sox, saying, “I didn’t want to put the spotlight on [Davis].”
Given his struggles and his salary, the spotlight will inevitably find Davis, who’s out of place in the Orioles’ youth movement, the oldest regular in the lineup. Cutting him in order to move on to Trey Mancini or another player at first base would mean setting a record in terms of sunk cost. The Angels ate $68 million of Josh Hamilton’s remaining salary when they traded him back to the Rangers in 2015, while the Red Sox absorbed $48.66 million when they dumped Pablo Sandoval in 2018. One can imagine the new regime not wanting to make headlines in such a way.
Sooner or later, Davis’ bat may force the issue, but for the moment, he’s in good standing as far as the team is concerned. Let us hope that on top of what was already an historically disastrous season, he can avoid claiming this slice of history.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.