BALTIMORE — By the time you’re 25 years old, baseball already has a pretty good idea of what you are. You’re no longer a prospect. So if you’re still in the minors, you’re an “organizational player.” Or if you manage to get to the big leagues, you’ll probably never stick — and if you do, you’re a fifth starter or a fourth outfielder or a lefty specialist, at best. You may eventually “figure it out” and improve your standing, but the gains will be only incremental. Time is no longer on your side.
In the summer of 2011, Chris Davis, 25 at the time, had seen his baseball ID all but cemented: He was a classic example of the “Four-A” (or “Quadruple-A”) slugger — good enough to dominate Class AAA pitching but not good enough to stick in the majors. Even his colorful nickname — “Crush” Davis — evoked Kevin Costner’s protagonist from the movie “Bull Durham,” who had made the big leagues once a long time ago but couldn’t stick.
The story of how Davis morphed from a Four-A flameout for the Texas Rangers in the summer of 2011 to the most prolific slugger in the majors for the Baltimore Orioles in the summer of 2013 is one of perseverance, faith and personal growth.
But it is also an example of how baseball is sometimes flat-out wrong. Sometimes you are more than what you appear to be at 25. Sometimes all it takes is a fresh start and a team willing to give you a proper chance, as the Orioles did after a fateful July 2011 trade.
“I think there was always the potential to put this kind of production up,” Davis, 27, said at his locker last week at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. “I think the biggest thing this year is the fact I’ve been in [the lineup] every day.”
The numbers are staggering: Through Sunday, Davis’s 31 home runs lead the majors by a half-dozen and put him on pace to hit 61 by year’s end. His slugging percentage of .728 also leads the majors by a wide margin and, should it stay there, would be the highest recorded since Barry Bonds in 2004. He also leads the majors in total bases (217) and extra-base hits (56) and ranked second in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.135).
But the numbers alone hardly do justice to Davis’s breathtaking power. He doesn’t hit fluky wall-scrapers or wind-blown luck-jobs. He hits towering moon shots, screaming three-woods and tape-measure rockets. He has also been known to hit homers with a broken bat, off his front foot, with one hand and on pitches well outside the strike zone.
Case in point: It’s April 28 in Oakland, tie ballgame, eighth inning. Davis is facing Athletics reliever Sean Doolittle, a hard-throwing lefty. After getting ahead 0-2 on a pair of fastballs, Doolittle tries to get Davis to chase a nasty curveball just off the outside corner, and Davis bites. Fooled by both the speed and trajectory of the pitch, Davis is out on his front foot, reaching, and is forced to make a defensive hack — the kind that hopefully will result in a weak foul ball and another chance.
By the time Davis makes contact, his left hand has come off the bat completely, but with his right hand, Davis puts the barrel of the bat on the ball and yanks it — over the fence in right-center, a home run blast that measured 419 feet.
With one hand. Off his front foot. On an 0-2 curveball off the plate from a tough lefty.
“Yeah, I remember it,” Davis said. “That’s one of those times where you’re like, ‘Did that really happen?’ ”
Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley also remembered it. “How did he do that?” Presley asked rhetorically. “Well, just look at him.”
Power and size were never a problem for Christopher Lyn Davis. He was nine pounds and 22 inches at birth, and by high school had grown to a muscular 230 pounds on a 6-foot-3 frame.
“He was probably the strongest guy I knew,” said Washington Redskins left tackle Trent Williams, who was briefly a teammate of Davis’s on the Longview (Tex.) High School football team.
A fifth-round draft pick out of Navarro Junior College in 2006 by the Rangers — the team he had grown up rooting for — Davis put up massive numbers at every level of the minor leagues, advancing to Class AA within a year of signing and getting his first call-up to the majors within about two years. His promising 2008 rookie season included 17 homers in just 295 at-bats.
But Davis’s time with the Rangers is best defined by his failures, and the indignities he endured because of them: His whopping 150 strikeouts in 419 plate appearances in 2009. His two demotions to Class AAA in 2010. The Rangers’ decision to leave him off their postseason roster that October.
By the time he failed to make the Rangers out of spring training in 2011, Davis knew his career had reached a crossroads. If he was ever going to become something in this game, he had to leave his hometown team.
“There were already opinions formed about me” in Texas, Davis said, “and I knew that. I knew what they thought of me as a player, what they thought I was gonna be. It was time for me to go somewhere else. . . . I’ll never forget the last time they sent me down. That was the point where I said, ‘If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be. But let’s get this over with.’ ”
By July 2011, a motivated Davis — “I was playing for 29 other teams at that point,” he said — was making a mockery of Class AAA pitching, hitting .368 with a .405 on-base percentage and an .824 slugging percentage, with 24 homers in 48 games.
One of the opposing GMs trying to pry him away from the Rangers was Baltimore’s Andy MacPhail, who had already agreed with Rangers counterpart Jon Daniels on the framework of a deal that would send ace reliever Koji Uehara to Texas in exchange for pitcher Tommy Hunter. But MacPhail wanted Davis added to the deal, and the Rangers responded by insisting the Orioles kick in a substantial amount of cash to offset Uehara’s salary.
The Orioles refused — until a separate trade with the Pirates that sent first baseman Derrek Lee to Pittsburgh freed up some cash, and the Orioles agreed to send $2 million to the Rangers. The deal was done.
“The Rangers, in our view, were the most talented team in baseball,” MacPhail said in a telephone interview. Davis “really couldn’t find a spot to play. They had players ahead of him who were quite successful. In our view, he just needed a prolonged opportunity at the major league level to see if he could translate his minor league numbers into major league numbers.”
Soon after Davis joined the Orioles, Manager Buck Showalter — who had managed the Rangers in 2006 when they drafted Davis — called him into his office and laid out the team’s vision.
“He sat me down,” Davis recalled, “and said, ‘Look, we obviously like you. It’s not an open-ended ticket. You still have to produce. But we’re going to give you the opportunity. It’s whatever you make of it.’ ”
Still, it would take months before he could establish himself in Baltimore as an everyday player. Even as Davis was on his way to clubbing 33 homers in 2012, Showalter would sit him down the stretch against tough left-handed starters, choosing the likes of Lew Ford and Steve Tolleson ahead of him.
It wasn’t until April 2013 that Davis was given a full-time position — first base, where he has been surprisingly proficient – and an unquestioned spot in the Orioles’ lineup.
Thirty-one Davis home runs and 47 Orioles wins later, baseball has newly categorized him: At 27, Chris Davis is, for now at least, the most prolific slugger in the game.