The Orioles’ season as a whole has been a bleak one. They’ve got the majors’ lowest-scoring offense at 3.49 runs per game, and the third-worst run prevention at 5.22 runs per game — yes, they’re being outscored by nearly two runs every time they take the field. Halfway through June, they’re already 27 games out of first place, and on a 46-116 pace.
If you think that’s bad, pour yourself a stiff drink and then barrel headlong into the heart of darkness by considering the performance of Chris Davis.
In the annals of baguiseball history, you can find bad seasons by garden-variety players who weren’t making much money. You can find terrible seasons by highly paid players who quite reasonably could have been expected to perform better; Albert Pujols finishing with -1.9 WAR last year at a price of $26 million is just the most recent example. And then there is whatever is going on with Davis. The 32-year-old Orioles slugger, who’s in the third year of a seven-year, $161 million deal, is threatening to produce the least valuable season of all time in terms of WAR. Through the Orioles’ 67 games (of which he’s played just 57), he’s at -1.9 WAR, which projects to somewhere between -4.6 and -4.7 over a 162-game season. (Depending on the rounding: his WAR actually rose overnight while the Orioles were inactive.)
As Dan Szymborski put it the other day:
At what point does Davis have more value as a lefty reliever?
— Alan (@CamdenFanatic) June 7, 2018
Here is the leaderboard of the damned:
|9T||Adam Dunn||White Sox||2011||496||60||-22.9||-5.4||-4.2||-11.3||-27.8||-2.9|
|13T||Hunter Hill||– – –||1904||554||52||-28.2||-0.1||-19.0||3.6||-26.4||-2.7|
|13T||Mike Caruso||White Sox||1999||564||46||-41.0||-4.0||-10.0||6.7||-28.2||-2.7|
That list includes some familiar names of relatively recent vintage, glove men (by reputation, if not metrics) with woefully inadequate bats such as Perez and Guzman, a big lug who could no longer even fake defensive responsibilities (Dunn), a former MVP on his last legs (McGee), a future legend in the scouting and player-development realm (Thompson), some commons from my first couple sets of Topps baseball cards (Royster, Rockett, Meyer, and just outside the frame at -2.5 WAR, 1977-model Doug Flynn), a guy who played like he was the 148-year-old former shortstop of the pioneering Boston Red Stockings (Wright), the shortstop on the team with the most runs allowed in a single season since 1901 (Thevenow, whose Phillies yielded 7.79 runs per game; the aforementioned Thompson was his double-play partner), and a woefully overmatched shortstop for some particularly crummy Browns teams who also played in the NFL (Levey). Davis could top — or out-bottom — them all.
In 229 plate appearances, Davis is currently “hitting” .150/.227/.227 for a 24 wRC+. Of the 158 players with enough PA to qualify for the batting title in their respective leagues through Wednesday, he ranked 158th in all of those categories except OBP, where he was 157th ahead of Marlins rookie Lewis Brinson (.214). Oh, and if you’re wondering, that 24 wRC+ is a point ahead of the 1933 edition of Levey, who had the lowest ever for a qualifier. Meanwhile, Davis’ 37.6% strikeout rate is also the majors’ worst and his .077 ISO is fifth from the bottom, a few points ahead of non-sluggers like Dee Gordon, Jose Peraza, and Jose Pirela (a pair that I can never keep straight).
Davis’ season-high hitting streak is three games long, from May 2 to 4, by the end of which he was hitting a comparatively robust .186/.284/.265. The only thing he’s hit since then is the skids: .114/.168/.190 with 50 strikeouts and just six walks in 113 PA; that’s a -7 wRC+, which I don’t think our human brains can comprehend. By comparison, Jon Lester, a pitcher so bad with the stick that he needed 67 at-bats to collect his first major-league hit, has batted .128/.184/.191 (-4 wRC+) in 171 PA over the last three seasons.
Davis has long been one of the game’s more volatile performers. He’s spent parts of 11 seasons in the majors, the best of which was 2013, when he led the AL with 53 homers and 138 RBI, hit for a 168 wRC+ and was worth 7.0 WAR. His second best season was in 2015, when he again led the AL with 47 homers, hit for a 149 wRC+ and was worth 5.4 WAR. His third-best season (2016, 38 homers, 112 wRC+) was worth 2.8 WAR, his fourth best (2012, 33 homers, 121 wRC+), worth 1.8 WAR, a hair below average for a full-time regular. His fifth-“best” season was a disasterpiece, with 26 homers, 94 wRC+, and just 0.9 WAR, came in 2014 and featured a 25-game suspension for testing positive for Adderall, a banned stimulant for which he previously had a therapeutic use exemption. Last year, he hit a grim .215/.309/.423 with 26 homers, a 92 wRC+, and just 0.1 WAR.
So Davis’ crash is a multi-year one. His Statcast numbers show him moving in the wrong direction in just about every category since 2015:
Say what you will about the severity of that decline, but the trend is alarming in its consistency. Davis is hitting more grounders than fly balls for the first time since 2012, and his xwOBA is the 16th-lowest of the 281 players who have seen at least 500 pitches. His pull rate (43.4%) is lower than in his two best seasons (46.2% in 2013, 55.9% in 2015), but he faces infield shifts virtually all the time; he has just two balls in play that weren’t against the shift all season, both outs. His overall .229 BABIP is the 11th-lowest among qualifiers, but still ahead of other players with lower batting averages such as Gary Sanchez, Ian Kinsler and Bryce Harper, all of whom have higher wRC+ marks nonetheless
Davis’ plate-discipline stats aren’t particularly askew relative to the rest of his admittedly uneven career. His outside-the-zone swing rate (31.8%) is the highest it’s been since 2013 but still below his career mark (32.9%). His zone contact rate (79.1%) is higher than his career mark (77.9%). His 14.8% swinging-strike rate is solidly below where he was prior to 2015.
A look at Davis’ wRC+ splits based on Pitch Info classifications is where the severity of his crash really sticks out. Now, there’s been no drastic change in the distribution of pitch types against him:
But in terms of performance, yikes:
Davis began struggling against four-seam fastballs last year, but his troubles with the sinker is brand new. He’s generally been awful against curveballs, but now he’s just utterly helpless against both those and sliders. Yes, we’re talking small sample sizes here, but still: in his 27 plate appearances that have ended with curves this season, he has three hits (zero homers), no walks, and nine strikeouts; in the 36 that have ended with sliders, he has two hits (one homer), three walks, and 20 strikeouts. Changeups? There he has 40 PA, six hits, three walks, and 15 strikeouts. Together, those three pitches account for 38% of all the pitches he’s seen, and 45% of the final pitches of his plate appearances. In those 103 PA, he’s hit .115/.165/.177 — again in sub-Jon Lester territory.
Chris Davis must be as lost as a professional athlete can be. I generally make a point of not projecting myself into the heads of the players about whom I write, but I have to imagine that it’s difficult to face such struggles professionally. Davis’ situation is so bad that a Baltimore bar is apparently giving out free shots of some dreadful concoction — “a mix of amaretto and Miller High Life beer in Pony bottles… called Dr Pepper shooters because they taste like the soft drink” — on the rare occasions that Davis gets a hit, but at least that’s better than giving away shots when he strikes out. A $23 million annual salary likely softens the blow of such a bad performance, knowing that one’s family set for life, but it’s also possible that the salary is just another burden. The temptation might be to try justifying it with one swing of the bat, making it even harder to dig out.
Is it his eyesight? His medication — or, given what happened in 2014, his lack of same? An undisclosed injury, or a mechanical flaw? I don’t know, and by the look of it, the Orioles haven’t the slightest idea, either. Davis’ relationship with hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh has recently come under scrutiny, with the coach telling Hall of Fame pitcher-turned broadcaster Jim Palmer that the pair — who have worked together for 11 years dating back to Davis’ days with the Rangers — only saw each other three times over the winter, contrary to Davis’ assertions of “three times a week when he wasn’t out of town.” Palmer publicly questioned Davis’ work ethic. Perhaps the drama there is a factor, but who knows?
That was three weeks ago, and it’s still unclear where Davis and the Orioles go from here. He can’t be sent to the minors without his permission, and as the Baltimore Sun’s Eduardo A Encina noted, if he did, “[I]t would be an unprecedented move that would likely cause concern in the players union.” A phantom injury with a rehab assignment might work, if he weren’t already under so much scrutiny. It’s difficult to believe the Orioles will keep playing him to the point that he could break the negative WAR record for a season, but then again, what are they doing but playing out the string in pursuit of the top draft pick at this point?
Davis is owed around $13 million for the remainder of this season plus $92 million for the four seasons after this year ($24 million of which is deferred). No team has ever flat-out released a player with that kind of money remaining. The Red Sox owed Pablo Sandoval $48,660,494 when they cut him in July 2017. The Angels swallowed $68 million when trading Josh Hamilton to the Rangers in 2015, but they didn’t release him. The Orioles don’t have the stomach to trade Manny Machado a moment before they need to, so there’s no reason to believe they’ll cut ties with Davis anytime soon. But how they attempt to get him back to being a reasonably productive player, if that is indeed still possible, is anyone’s guess.
Update: Hours after this was published, the Orioles announced that they were indefinitely benching Davis. He is available if “the team needs what he can bring” off the bench, according to manager Buck Showalter.
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.