Chris Davis (30 homers) puts himself in running for AL MVP
One can only imagine the damage major-league home run leader Chris Davis could inflict on Yankee Stadium's short porch in rightfield. The Yankees did when they selected the lefthanded slugger out of high school, albeit in the 50th and final round of the 2004 draft.
"I felt like I was young and had a few years to improve," said Davis, who rejected not only the Yankees but the Angels the following year. "I had a lot of baseball to learn and, really, a lot of growing up to do. I think things have worked out the way they were supposed to."
That's hard to argue, given that Davis suddenly is being mentioned in concert with Miguel Cabrera whenever the words "Triple Crown" and "MVP" are spoken.
Davis is batting .333 with 30 homers and 79 RBIs in 81 games after hitting a three-run homer in the first inning and a two-run shot in the sixth Saturday night against the Yankees. He entered the game among the American League leaders in slugging percentage (.704), OPS (1.109), extra-base hits (53) and total bases (205), solidifying the middle of the Baltimore batting order.
Davis figures to see plenty of New York in the first half of July. Not only do the Orioles come to the Bronx (July 5-7), but he is the American League's leading vote-getter at first base for the All-Star Game at Citi Field July 16.
"That's obviously a big reward for having a good first half," Davis said this past week. "It's always been a goal of mine to make the All-Star team."
What's transformed Davis from a strikeout-prone and marginal big-leaguer into one of the most feared hitters in the game? Davis says it's experience and learning to take pressure off himself.
"I've realized this game isn't the end-all, be-all," he said. "For a long time, I put so much weight on what I was doing on the field, it almost ran my life."
Pitcher Tommy Hunter, acquired by the Orioles from Texas along with Davis in exchange for reliever Koji Uehara on July 30, 2011, credits Davis' success to getting married and getting a chance to play every day, something Davis never quite managed to do in three seasons with the Rangers.
"When you do the job, you get rewarded. You pat a guy on the butt after hitting a home run," Hunter said. "He's reaping the benefits for doing his job and doing it very well right now for a playoff-contending team."
That contender might well have been the Rangers. But Davis, who struck out 302 times in 266 games for Texas, was too all-or-nothing at the plate for the Rangers.
"Obviously, there were times when I was struggling to put the ball in play," he said. "When you swing hard and have a lot of power, that's kind of what comes with it. But it was something I don't think the Rangers were really willing to live with. In my mind, I'd rather take a good, hard cut and miss than put a little, weak swing on the ball and ground out. As a power hitter, you want to know your game and commit to it."
Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley isn't scared by an occasional strikeout. In eight seasons, Presley hit 135 home runs and finished in the top five in AL strikeouts three times. Davis struck out 169 times on his way to a .270 average, 33 homers and 85 RBIs last season and, with more plate appearances, is on pace to exceed that whiff total this year. He has fanned 89 times in 81 games.
"Striking out is not the worst thing, but you can't strike out 200 times," Presley said. "I would think a goal for him is 120, 130. Is that going to happen? I'm a realist. If he keeps it under 150, I'd be happy. But give him 500 at-bats and he's going to do damage [because] his contact-to-damage ratio is so good."
Nick Markakis, also in contention to start the All-Star Game, sees a different Davis.
"He's come a long way," the Baltimore rightfielder said. "In Texas he had a big swing and constantly chased off-speed stuff down. He's getting better with plate discipline.
"There are a couple guys who aren't fun to play rightfield against, and he's one of them. His best asset may be his tremendous power to the opposite field. But when he does hit a ball to right, it's coming in hot -- coming off his bat at a different angle than most. He'll pull a topspinner right at you, and as any outfielder will tell you, those are the worst balls to try to catch."
Hitting to all fields, hitting with two strikes and accepting more walks, Davis is averaging a home run every 9.8 at-bats, a pace that could deny Cabrera an unprecedented second consecutive Triple Crown.
Davis has nothing but admiration for Cabrera, who is leading the AL in average (.375) and RBIs (81) but trails Davis with 24 home runs.
"I don't know too many guys in the big leagues that don't marvel at [Cabrera]," said Davis, who outhomered Cabrera 3-1 in a recent series in Detroit. "He's, in my mind, the best hitter in the game right now -- maybe one of the best to ever play.
"My goal," Davis said, "has never been to win a Triple Crown. But an MVP -- that's realistic. And as any player will tell you, winning the MVP is probably the highest honor in the game, not only because it means you had a great season but that your team did really well.
"With Miguel and [Mike] Trout last year, I think both guys were deserving, but the fact that the Tigers were good enough to go to the World Series, I think, played a big role in it."