One of my more interesting and enlightening conversations in spring training, before the door slammed shut and everyone headed home, came on Feb. 24 with first baseman Chris Davis as we sat in the media workroom following his final round of batting practice.
The Orioles were on the road and I stayed back in camp, waiting for Davis to leave the field and wondering if he’d remember that he agreed to an interview.
Seizing a chance to get out of the sun, Davis asked whether we could talk at the table where I was set up rather than on the patio. The one-on-one served as a follow-up to the scrum at his locker after he reported.
More on the “good weight” he put on at home during the winter. The how and why. And most important to Davis, the psychological impact of the muscle.
It went straight to his head, as I wrote the next day in my latest attempt to be clever.
Davis told me that his weight dropped to 212 lbs. by September, three fewer than during his senior year of high school. He also detailed his return visit last summer to OnBase University, an offshoot of the Titleist Performance Institute in California that studies a hitter’s movements. Davis met with Dr. Greg Rose, who specializes in sports biomechanics, strength and conditioning, manual therapy, rehabilitation and therapeutic exercises as they relate to sports.
Head athletic trainer Brian Ebel and strength and conditioning coach Joe Hogarty accompanied Davis, who learned that he’s lacking range of motion in his left hip. He’s gone on the injured list with soreness, most recently in May 2019.
The tightness was preventing Davis from tapping into more than about 40 percent of his power, and understanding why made it easier to find a solution.
“I feel alive right now,” he said in Sarasota.
“I feel physically right now a lot better than I have in years and I feel like that shows.”
People in camp noticed as Davis hit three home runs and went 7-for-15 with nine RBIs and only three strikeouts. They also agreed that the added muscle was good for his body and his mind.
“I think that part was step one for him,” hitting coach Don Long said last week. “In talking to him, I think being bigger and having really worked out in a different way than he had been maybe for the last year or so, kind of getting back to what he used to do, knowing that when he was standing at home plate, he felt strong. If you feel strong, it’s easier to feel like you can do less and still impact the ball the way you want to. Even if that’s a placebo or it’s psychological, that’s a pretty important factor.
“And the other part of it is, I think he really committed himself over the winter to ... he’s been through so much and if you asked him, he couldn’t have reached a lower point mentally, and so you kind of reach a point where you might hit the bottom, and that’s really the best place to build your strongest foundation. Once you reach the bottom. And I think he committed himself to having a mindset that was less focused on external factors, you know? What do people think? What are they going to say? And just more on, ‘You know what? I’m going to go up to home plate and no matter what happens, I’m going to be ready to attack the ball and whatever happens, happens.’
“That sounds like of simplified, but I think between the physical part of it, feeling stronger, and the mindset side of being able to let go and not worry about other people’s expectations in a sense is really empowering for anybody. And I think he really played off of those two things.”
Davis also drew nine walks in his nine exhibition games, the 10th game called off as he was driving to Fort Myers on March 12. But he wasn’t guilty of being passive at the plate.
“He was much more aggressive,” Long said. “On 3-0, he was swinging the bat. At 0-0, he was trying to swing the bat. And any of us, when we’re concerned about how it looks or concerned about making mistakes or we’re overly concerned about always trying to do the right thing and be perfect, it’s pretty paralyzing. So in the end, you end up, I don’t want to say not doing anything, but you end up being very in between. And I think the physical part of his game at the plate was reflected in how he was thinking.
“Last year, I think he saw that change in his demeanor at home plate and his willingness to be ready to hit, attack the ball and not fear making mistakes.”
Just as Davis appeared to be on the road to baseball recovery, his dramatic drop in production over the past four seasons making him a national curiosity and the target of irate Orioles fans, the pandemic detoured him to his Dallas home.
Can he pick up where he left off if the season starts later this summer?
It’s a question that’s been posed many times during the shutdown. By media and fans.
“I’ve talked to him, we’ve talked about that, and I think he’s really in a good spot in regard to that,” Long said. “Obviously, he wishes none of this would have happened for the most obvious reasons. The health and welfare of everybody. But on a smaller scale, he would like to have kept playing. But at the same time, I think he feels like it was validation for working on the physical and working on his mind over the winter.
“I think that short moment in time there in the games he did play, it validated that he’s on the right track. So I think it gave him an opportunity to really reinforce that he’s doing the right thing.”