Crushed Davis: Nobody Is Struggling With the Modern Game More Than Chris Davis
A version of this story appears in the Sept. 24–Oct. 1, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Baseball’s shortest walk feels like its longest. As Chris Davis trudges the 70 feet from home plate to the dugout, he has plenty of time to consider the people he has just let down. There are his fellow Orioles, of course, who will greet him with pats on the backside that feel more like condolences than encouragement. The coaches who sat on buckets to flip him thousands of balls over the years. His father, who coached him harder than anyone else. The organization that writes his paychecks and strings his likeness up on lampposts and sells dolls featuring grotesquely oversized representations of his head. His wife, who gave up her dream job without complaint when he got traded. His three kids, who seem to have grown two inches every time he returns from a 10-game road trip.
Davis, who has struck out 178 times through Sept. 13, knows baseball's walk of shame better than just about everyone else in the majors. But he forces himself to keep his head up, so pitchers can't see how demoralized he is. In doing so, he stares into a sea of fans at Camden Yards who tell him something he already knows, something that brings him to tears at his kitchen table: He sucks.
The degree to which he has sucked this season is almost without precedent. He has MLB's worst batting average (.174) and second-worst slugging percentage (.306). The fearsome lefthanded swing that mashed 53 homers in 2013 and 47 two years later has produced just 16 home runs. He has struck out at a 35.8% clip, fourth worst in history, behind '13 Chris Carter (36.2%), '17 Joey Gallo (36.8%) and '17 Chris Davis (37.2%). According to FanGraphs, his -2.8 WAR gives him an outside shot at unseating Jim Levey's -4.0 in 1933 for the worst season of all time. (Baseball Reference is slightly more charitable, giving Davis -2.3 WAR.)
"I have no clue what I'm doing at the plate," says the 32-year-old Davis, who is in the third season of a seven-year, $161 million contract—the most the Orioles have ever committed to one player, and the 22nd-most-lucrative deal ever. The money does little to assuage the daily humiliation, which has included headlines featuring the phrases "the tragedy of Chris Davis" and "MLB's worst contract bust." That he is struggling is bad enough. What seems to have broken him is that he can't stop thinking about it.
"This season has been a huge test for him mentally and emotionally," says veteran outfielder Craig Gentry. "Guys are supposed to give off this persona that they never struggle, that they never get stressed—and that's not true. It takes more of a man to admit these things than to bury everything deep down."
When Baltimore re-signed Davis in January 2016, he had led the majors in home runs twice in the previous three seasons. Now Orioles manager Buck Showalter routinely reminds his first baseman in earnest that he's the same guy he's always been. So what has changed?
Chris Davis doesn’t cry. He barely even says the word. His father, Lyn, is the type of hard-nosed Texan who would watch his son hit three home runs and whiff once in a middle school game, then drag him to the batting cage at 7:30 the next morning. So Davis grew up believing that men don't celebrate home runs, men don't hang their heads after a strikeout and men don't cry. And yet there he found himself in mid-August, behind the wheel of his car, weeping. (Or, as he puts it, "tears just falling from my eyes.") Jill, his wife of six years, had just put on "You Say" by Lauren Daigle, and the lyrics washed over him.
I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I'm not enough
Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up
Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low?
Remind me once again just who I am, because I need to know
He felt—feels—completely lost. "Failure just follows me around daily," he says. He wakes up in the morning and thinks about how bad he is. He gets to the ballpark and thinks about how bad he is. He takes batting practice, slogs through another hitless night and drives home thinking about how bad he is. He plays a game for a living, but it's not fun anymore. More than once this season he has considered his bank balance and considered quitting.
The agony is magnified by its relentlessness. A major league season is composed of 162 games in 184 days. Players learn quickly that the physical grind is nothing compared to the mental burden. Baseball is a game of failure, they remind themselves. Succeed 40% of the time and you’re a Hall of Famer. But no one has ever seen this degree of failure.
At first, Davis reminded himself that he'd been here before. Drafted by the Rangers in 2006, he struggled early in his career to shed the Quad A label that gets affixed to players who excel in Triple A but never quite make it in the bigs. Even his nickname, Crush Davis—a nod to the stalled-out, power-hitting protagonist in Bull Durham—was a backhanded compliment.
In 2010, as Davis slugged a career-low .292 in 45 games with Texas, he pored over video and entertained nearly every suggestion he received. He all but changed stances mid-swing. Finally, he decided to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic, to free himself of the tangled advice and get back to the easy swing that had clubbed 450-foot homers at Longview High, three hours east of Dallas. Traded to Baltimore in the middle of '11, he was an All-Star in his second full year with the O's, leading the majors in home runs, RBIs and total bases, and finishing third in MVP voting.
But nothing about his swing has been easy over the past three seasons, his production falling off each year since signing that megadeal. After hitting .215 with 26 home runs last year, he was batting a season-low .150 with four home runs. He met with Brady Anderson, the Orioles' VP of baseball operations whose single-season franchise record for dingers had been broken by Davis in 2013, staged a mini-intervention. "You're not going to play for a few days," Anderson said.
"I'm kind of surprised it took this long," Davis replied.
They settled on an eight-game break during which Davis rose at 8 a.m., drove his four-year-old daughter, Ella, to school and headed straight for Camden Yards. Minor league pitchers who needed work were summoned for simulated games. Anderson stood off to the side, shouting instructions, as Davis took 12 or 15 at bats. The pitchers rotated. Davis stayed in the box, swinging, swinging, swinging. He showered, ate lunch and watched the team take batting practice. He sat on the bench as Baltimore went 2–6. He returned, certain he was ready to contribute ... and he has hit .195 since, albeit with 12 home runs.
He finds himself turning increasingly toward his faith. As his struggles deepened this season, Davis occasionally questioned what exactly he was supposed to be learning. He didn’t exactly believe he was being punished, but was God pointing out some sin in him? Had he displeased Him somehow?
Finally, in late August, things came to a head. Ella watched Peppa Pig and his eight-month-old twins slept. Chris slumped at the kitchen table, pleading with Jill, a registered nurse who left her job to support him, to diagnose whatever moral disease had brought him here. "Am I blind to something that I'm habitually doing?" he asked. “Do you see anything in me that needs to be brought to light?"
"You're right where God needs you to be," she assured him.
“I just don’t understand,” he said, his words muffled through his hands. “How can I go out there every day and just not succeed? It’s baffling to me.”
“Your words carry a lot of weight,” Jill said finally. “In the clubhouse, in the community, in the city of Baltimore, your words carry a lot of weight. But your testimony speaks so much louder when you struggle.”
Chris threw his head back. “Tears just started coming down my face,” he says. Eventually he wiped them off and went to bed.
“One of the biggest misconceptions of the gospel, in my mind, is that you have to be perfect,” he says now. “That is the complete opposite of the truth. Christ paid for our sins on the cross knowing that we would never be able to measure up.”
Christianity is a game of failure, too, he says. The idea is to fall short, then wake up the next day and try again.
Showalter has a question. Moments ago he was jovially kicking around stories about Ken Griffey Jr. during a recent pregame press conference, but now, standing outside the dugout during batting practice, he's scowling. "Is this gonna be a bad, bury Chris thing?" he demands. "Because I don't want to be a part of that."
There has been plenty of that this season. It’s not easy to be among the least valuable players in history. You can’t just play badly; you also have to play a lot. Showalter took a look at the numbers in early August and extended a courtesy to his sometimes slugger: He offered to sit Davis in September so he wouldn't amass enough at bats to pass Levey's mark. "Let me be the bad guy," the skipper said.
"I'm not scared of these numbers," Davis answered. "I'm going to continue to stay with my plan, stay with my approach. It may look like crap, but I'm not going to run from this."
In June, as Davis’s average dove to .150, a bar in Baltimore began offering free shots every time he got a hit. Fans called for Davis to be benched, released, shot into the sun. But in the end, the moment that Davis calls “the worst point in my career” came from inside the house. On the postgame show after an 0–4 in May, Baltimore legend Jim Palmer weighed in. He had heard that Davis was either overwhelmed by or complacent because of his deal.
“He’s not the only guy in the major leagues who got a big contract,” Palmer said on air. “You’ve got to make some adjustments. I don’t see anything.”
Some people in the organization privately wondered if Palmer had a point. Davis had refused to switch to a lighter bat, had given up after only a few games on the idea of bunting toward third as an antidote to the infielders who clustered on the right side against him. He had only worked with Coolbaugh a handful of times that offseason. Davis once channeled his energy into earning the big contract. Now he focuses on living up to it. Was he too stubborn? Had he lost his edge?
The comments crushed Davis, who felt Palmer was questioning his integrity, and briefly created discord. Coolbaugh tried to help him frame the incident differently.
“I think the way he said it was making it look like Chris doesn’t work,” Coolbaugh says. “I think that was the hardest thing for Chris to grasp, because he read it as he was discrediting his work ethic, and that wasn’t the point at all. The point was that [Palmer] wasn’t seeing any adjustments at the plate. I think that there comes a time where you have kind of hit rock bottom, and it’s like, I’m going to do something just to survive at that moment. And I don’t know if Chris has ever been that type of player. So when you have never had to do that before, that’s tough to do. … Sometimes the player says, ‘It’s going to be O.K. It’s going to be fine. I’m gonna just keep doing this,’ and nobody else is seeing any adjustments.”
Davis’s relationship with adjustments is complicated. He works until his hands bleed. (“I’m ADHD, for crying out loud,” he says.) But he learned during that awful stretch in Texas to rely on what felt right to him, and although he tries not to be stubborn, coaches say he sometimes becomes consumed with results. He worked early this season to bunt against the shift, watched three different fielders make three exceptional plays and scrapped the strategy.
“I was like, This is not beneficial for me or for my team,” he says. “So I kind of put that on the back burner and just continued to search. Basically what I came up with was, I’m working so hard to try and change who I am as a player to combat what the defense is doing to me. Why don’t I just try to focus on what I do well?”
And therein may lie the problem. The answer to Showalter’s question is simple: Nothing has changed, except the game. There is no hitch in Davis's swing, no mistake of timing. The issue, scouts say, is surely mental. "He thinks for that money he's gotta hit home runs, he's gotta pull the ball," says one. Davis spent his whole career trying to develop into a pull hitter, then he woke up one morning and found that things had ... shifted.
If you had designed a style of baseball that would be least charitable to Chris Davis personally, you might have settled on something like today’s: positional versatility that makes a stiff first baseman seem especially limited, moving infielders who gobble up his pulled liners, high-velocity pitchers who challenge him inside, a flyball revolution making his main tool less scarce—and thus less valuable—than ever before. He still has the pop to hit 40 home runs. But last year 190-pound shortstop Francisco Lindor hit 33.
Davis faces a shifted defense on 91% of the pitches he sees. Three years ago, when he led the majors with 47 home runs, it was only 75.3%. This season, Davis has faced a shift on 90.5% of pitches, by far the most in the game.
Davis still has the power to hit it out of Yellowstone, but that only compounds his struggles. You can't, as the scout puts it, "special-order home runs," which are generally the accidental result of solid contact. "When you see shifts you think you have to hit it over them, so you try to scoop the ball, like in jai alai," the scout says. "That's what his swing looks like now. He's freaking out."
According to Statcast data, the percentage of balls Davis has barreled has dropped precipitously, from 17.8 in 2015—good for third in baseball—to 10.6 this year, which ranks 57th. As pitchers pump fastballs around the edges of the plate, confident that he'll anxiously reach for them, Davis has replaced those solid thwacks with an uninspiring string of misstruck dribblers to the right side.
Squaring a ball up can be just as demoralizing, though. In July 2017, Davis scorched a line drive about 10 feet over the first baseman's head and thought double all the way. Positioned in shallow right near the line, Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor made an easy, chest-high catch. "I didn't even see him when I was in the box," Davis says. "I was like, This is ridiculous. This isn't baseball to me."
The shift haunts him. When he digs into the box, he surveys the field and sees what looks like a dozen men out there. Where am I supposed to put it? he thinks. In the end he usually puts it nowhere, then begins that long walk.
There have been many opportunities for this story to have a happier ending. Toward the end of that eight-game break, Davis became convinced he had found something. He took batting practice at Nationals Park and launched a ball clear out of the stadium. He was back in the lineup the next day against the Braves, and he walked his first time up and homered his second. Then he collected one hit over his next four games.
Then there was the game at Camden Yards just a few weeks ago, against the Red Sox. It was another 0-for-4 day in a season full of them. Davis usually heads straight for the showers so he can meet his family after games, but on this afternoon he couldn't drag himself from the bench behind the dugout rail. He's still respected in the clubhouse—"Guys can learn from him," Gentry says. "He's getting judged and critiqued all the time, and he's able to push that aside and still be a great teammate"—but now Davis sat alone, shoes untied, shirt untucked, cap discarded, eye black smeared, as the grounds crew cleaned the field. He rested his head in his hands and tried to imagine the rest of the season, the rest of his contract, the rest of his life. Why was he doing this to himself? He was beating his head against the wall every day. Would there really be any shame in acknowledging what everyone else saw anyway, that he was done?
It began to rain, big, fat drops that splashed audibly on the grass and the dirt and Davis’s head. Well, this is a little on-the-nose, he thought. Still he sat there, contemplating his future. Fans streamed out of the ballpark, jostling for cover. Suddenly he heard a voice behind him. "Keep your head up, Chris!" a middle-aged man in an Orioles shirt yelled. "You've got the greatest job in the world!" Davis cocked his head. He's right, he thought. He stood up and walked to the clubhouse. Unfortunately, the sun eventually came out again.