Reluctant to make any real changes to his approach at the plate while his production tumbled and the criticism rose, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis decided to bring a different look to spring training in 2021. And it has nothing to do with muscle.
Exactly how drastic won’t be known until the exhibition games begin, with the opener on Sunday against the Pirates in Sarasota, Fla.
Workouts are closed to the media and Davis remained coy today while talking about it with the media on a Zoom conference call. However, it seems that he’s at least adjusted his stance.
“I did some things differently,” he said. “You’ll see it. It will be visible to the naked eye. I’m excited about it. I think there are a lot of really positive things going on around here and I feel like I have done substantial work to really step outside of my comfort zone and change some things. Mechanically, physically change some things about how I’m approaching my at-bats.
“It’s going to be weird, it’s going to be uncomfortable, but I think it’s overdue, to say the least.”
Asked if he could expand on it, Davis smiled and said, “No, you’ll have to tune in and watch the games. I’m not going to give everything away right now.
“It’s going to look different. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Manager Brandon Hyde offered only a small clue.
“I’ve been talking about making adjustments for a couple years and I think this offseason he wanted to change some things in his swing,” Hyde said. “I do see some physical differences in his batting practice and live BP. It’s only been a few days, so wait until games start and really take a long look. But his setup’s a little bit different at the plate and he’s got a good mindset right now.
“Like the last couple years, he’s come in with a great attitude, a team-first attitude and he’s doing a nice job on the field right now.”
The defensive shifts have contributed to Davis’ woes, and he’s basically tried to hit through it. He can see the field. He just hasn’t reacted to it.
“It’s not an excuse, by any means,” he said. “The bunt was always there. I felt early on in my career and early on in my contract that I was being paid to produce runs. I was being paid to be the guy to drive in the runs. I was not being paid to lay bunts down and steal bases. That dynamic changed very quickly.
“I don’t know if you all remember the 2018 season, I led off for a few games and was trying to do something a little bit different and a little bit more dynamic, and it’s just not who I am. Now, that being said, I’m the one who has to look myself in the mirror every night and really kind of go to war with myself over the way I chose to handle the situation. If I could go back and do it over I probably would have done some things differently, but unfortunately, there’s no blueprint for this.
“For me, the main thing now is to focus on what I can, focus on the future and do everything I can to help this next wave of guys really get to their potential and put the club in the best position to win.”
Davis appeared in only 16 of the 60 games last season due to a knee injury and his struggles that produced a .115/.164/.173 slash line in 55 plate appearances. He was 6-for-52 with three doubles and an RBI, again making him an easy target for fans who demanded a lot more from a player owning the largest contract in franchise history at seven years and $161 million.
Two years and $46 million are left on a deal that’s obviously backfired. The Orioles saved about $14.5 million last summer due to the shorter schedule, per the agreement between the league and union established in March.
The offseason for Davis has involved rehabbing the knee, which twice forced him onto the injured list with left patella tendinitis and required a platelet-rich plasma injection during the season, working on a left hip that lacks motion - a condition found in 2019 during a visit to OnBase University, an offshoot of the Titleist Performance Institute in California that studies a hitter’s movements - and again going through a mental reset.
“They’re good. Both of them,” Davis, who turns 35 next month, said when asked about his knee.
“I feel really good. I did a lot of work this offseason with a physical therapist in Arlington, Texas, at Dr. Keith Meister’s institute and I feel really good. I do. Definitely not any younger, but my legs feel better than I thought they would at this point.”
Davis also feels better about the direction of the rebuild and the team, a reversal from his December comments when he said, “It’s tough to really know what to make of it right now. There is no doubt that we’re in a rebuilding phase and personally I kind of wonder where that rebuild is headed. Are we talking a complete rebuild, are we talking we’re going to try to start things over from scratch and only have younger players, players that this new regime has drafted, that they’ve brought in, that they’re brought up?”
Some clarity on the situation came to Davis early at spring training.
“I think the questions that I had have been answered here the first few days,” he said this afternoon. “I trust what Mike (Elias) is doing, I trust what our (partnership group) wants to do moving forward and I think we have the guys in the clubhouse to turn this thing around.
“Do I know the time frame of that? I don’t. But I know that as long as I’m here, I’m going to do everything that I can to be there for those guys and kind of give them an idea of what winning baseball was like in Baltimore and what it can be like in the future.”
Trey Mancini appears to be in line for most of the starts at first base, which could push Davis to the bench. Davis is going to get an extended look in camp, where he flourished last spring but couldn’t sustain it through the shutdown and season. He must compete for at-bats, which Hyde and executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias have stated.
“I had to compete for at-bats in 2012,” Davis said. “I was traded over here in ‘11 at the deadline and I was playing third base, a little bit of first base, and really I feel like every year of my career I’ve approached spring training to compete for at-bats. That’s really how I think any player should approach it, because if you just come in thinking that it’s your job and you don’t have to do anything, you’re not doing yourself or anybody in the clubhouse any favors. And that’s the way I’ve approached this offseason and this coming spring training.
“I’m going to continue to do the same thing. I’m going to push guys around me, I’m going to push Trey at first base, whoever else is over there, and they’re going to push me back. And that’s how you find out who your best guys are and I have no doubt in my mind that we’re going to have the best nine out there and you’re going to see a lot of familiar faces.”
Said Hyde: “I think he’s going to play quite a bit. I told him yesterday, I’m going to give him as many at-bats as I possibly can. I’m going to treat him like everybody else and play him as much as possible and try to get him to feel comfortable going into the season.”
Davis has talked about retirement with his wife, Jill, about walking away from the game before his contract expires, but he’s never reached a point where he was on the verge of quitting.
“There were times, and I feel like it’s completely normal and completely human to have those doubts when you’re struggling and struggling as long as I did, but really honestly for me, last spring was an eye-opener,” Davis said. “It was, ‘OK, I can still do this.’ I was frustrated with the way things played out last season, to say the least. I felt like I came into spring training in great shape, I was really swinging the bat well and everything stopped. But I also understand that we did get a chance to play some games and that there were a lot of things that were bigger than baseball going on.
“In a way, the pandemic really has been a blessing in disguise for me because it’s allowed me some time to reflect and really think about what’s important to me.”
The stance and approach at the plate might have changed, but Davis remains the team’s union representative and he didn’t sound optimistic about the sides reaching agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement after 2021.
He described the relationship between owners and players as “divisive.”
“There is a lot of division between players and owners right now,” he said. “It’s obvious. I mean, it’s obvious in the media, it’s obvious in almost everything you read, and it’s frustrating as a veteran player because I feel like our game could be in such a better place than it’s in right now, but the only way for that to happen is for both sides to come together. And there’s got to be some give and take from both sides.
“Will that happen? I don’t know. Time will tell.”
A simple question was posed to Davis: Is he having fun being a major league player or have his feelings changed?
“Yes, I am having fun,” he replied. “I think it’s taken me several years to realize how much fun this game can be, because I was so hard on myself because I expected so much out of myself. And I felt like I let a lot of people down, not to mention myself. I felt like I was letting our fans down. That was a big deal to me and it took a lot out of me, but I think the pandemic has really helped me realize how much our fan base has supported me and how much I miss playing in front of our fans, and really what it’s all about.
“For me, I’ve been able to draw a lot of positives out of it, but it hasn’t been easy and I will continue to look at the brighter side of things and try to draw more positives out of the future. But every time you make a decision there’s consequences and some, unfortunately, are bigger than others. Like I said, if I could go back and do some things differently I probably would have, but there’s no use in trying to change the past.”