As a sports fan, growing up in Corpus Christi was pretty rough. The only local sports team was a minor league hockey team called the Ice Rays and the only high school talent was in baseball. The pro teams that the city is geographically tied to are solid, but my family forced them on me so much that I found it impossible to root for the Spurs and Cowboys. Only the Astros, led by my favorite player Jeff Bagwell, captured my fandom, but it didn’t take me long to abandon them for the Rangers once the Killer B-era had come and gone.
It wasn’t until 2005 that the city finally had a real team to call it’s own in the form of a minor league baseball team. Nolan Ryan’s son paved the way for the team, as the Round Rock Express became the Astros’ triple-A affiliate, opening the door for the Corpus Christi Hooks to replace them as the double-A affiliate. I was actually the first fan ever to attend a Hooks game and I remember being confused by all of the photographers snapping my picture as I had my ticket scanned at the gate.
Even though this was a very dry stretch in the history of the Astros farm system, I still had fun going to games to see the young talent that the Athletics and Rangers had in their system. The 2008 season was my favorite because the Frisco RoughRiders were featuring prospects Elvis Andrus and Chris Davis.
One summer night I moseyed my way down to the front row seats by the visitors’ on-deck circle despite having a $5 general admission ticket meant for the outfield berm. This particular seat was right in between the homeplate netting and the visitor’s dugout, so I was literally within arm’s reach of the players.
Andrus was the player that I had heard the most about, but Davis had made me a fan with his previous displays of power against the Hooks. Now, back then I was much more an autograph seeker than a journalist¹, but for whatever reason I decided to ask Davis a couple of questions the next time he was on-deck. Amazingly, instead of pretending all of the chatter in the crowd was white noise, Davis responded when I asked him when he would be in the majors.
“Soon,” he said with a smirk.
There was some more small talk throughout the night, but all I can remember is him hitting a homerun onto an empty right field berm to clinch the game. It didn’t take much to win me over as a fan back then, so Davis immediately became one of my favorite players. I had to have him on every one of my fantasy teams, I made my 24th AIM screename in his honor (DavisChris19) and I had no problem proclaiming to anyone that asked (and those who didn’t) that he was going to be the next big thing in Texas.
Unfortunately for Davis, his time with the Rangers made him out to be the best example of a AAAA player. He showed great power during his three major league stints with the Rangers (80 games in 2008, 113 games in 2009 and 45 games in 2010), but he always ended up back in triple-A because he wasn’t getting the bat on the ball. My excitement each time Davis arrived to the majors was culled each time he departed back to Round Rock. Any time he was in the minors, Davis was good for a .325+ average and double digit jacks, but his sky high strikeout rates made him a tough player for the Rangers to keep in the line-up.
In 2011, with Mitch Moreland assuming the first base role, the Rangers decided to part ways with Davis, packaging him with pitcher Tommy Hunter in exchange for Koji Uehara, who provided them with solid bullpen work for two seasons. It was a sad day for me, watching my favorite team trade away one of my favorite players, a player that I still had faith in.
The trade turned out to be bittersweet. Though the Rangers had given up on him, he was finally going to get a chance to play everyday for a team that was not relying heavily on his development into a star. There was tremendous pressure on Davis to be a star in Texas, particularly when they had Justin Smoak and Moreland behind him and getting better. In Baltimore, he was simply a power hitting first baseman with a chance to stake his claim as a major league regular for a team that wasn’t expected to be good.
And that is what he did last season. In 139 games and 562 plate appearances, Davis hit 33 homeruns, slugged .501 (29th in baseball) and posted a .231 isolated slugging percentage (19th in baseball, just ahead of Albert Pujols). He also hit .270, his highest average since he hit .285 in his hot rookie stretch with the Rangers in 2008 (80 games). Davis still posted a horrid 30.1% strikeout rate (fifth worst in baseball), but a team finally gave him a shot to stay in the line-up in spite of his whiffing, and he repaid the Orioles by blasting the 10th most homers in baseball and producing 2 WAR (wins above replacement).
And now, just four games into the 2013 season, Davis is already halfway to the career best 2 WAR mark that he posted last year. That’s because Davis has started off this season on a tear unlike any other in the history of baseball. Davis is 9-of-15 at the plate (.600 average) with four homers and 16 RBI to start the season. He has homered once in each of the Orioles’ first four games, making him the fourth player in MLB history to do so alongside Willie Mays, Mark McGwire* and Nelson Cruz**. His 16 RBI put Davis in a category all by himself as that is the most runs batted in for any player in the first four games of a season.
Adding to the value of this red hot streak has been the timing of Davis’ hits. With the Orioles up one in their season opener against the Rays, Davis blasted a three-run homer in the seventh to give them a much needed cushion in a three-run win. In the rubber match of that series, Davis delivered a two-run homer in the second inning to give Baltimore a 2-0 lead and then broke the 2-2 tie in the 6th inning with a two RBI double. Yesterday, in the eighth inning, after Adam Jones tied the game at 5 with an RBI single, Davis stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and cracked a game-winning grandslam.
I’ll spare you the notes about sample size and sustainability and note that I understand that four awesome games doesn’t mean much if the rest of the season goes poorly. But that doesn’t mean that this incredible run, which you can actually date back to the end of the regular season last year, isn’t a significant event for Davis that signifies a new chapter in his career, specifically the fact that he has pounded outside pitches this season, something that had previously been a weakness. At the age of 27, Davis may very well be hitting his peak, and with tweaks to his plate approach, he can easily be one of the game’s premier sluggers.
Davis’ approach at the plate will be something to monitor over the next few weeks. If there is even a mild reduction in his strikeout rate, there’s reason to believe that he’s turned a corner. For a player that has gone through a lot to get to this point – where all the headlines are about him and everyone of his at-bats is must see TV for any baseball fan – you know he is has worked for that to be the case.
“There were times when it was really hard to go out on a baseball field and grind out four at-bats. But you learn from that,” Davis told the Baltimore Sun after yesterday’s game. “You remember that. And it keeps you humble. That’s one of the big things in this game. You can be as hot as wildfire one minute and cold as ice the next minute. You’ve just got to ride out the highs and grind out the lows. I think a lot of things that happened to me when I was younger, my hot start with Texas as a rookie [in 2008] and then struggling and going back and forth, I just really learned a lot about myself. Not only as a player but as a person.”
So: Is this historic run by Davis another quick peek at his potential with a long valley soon to come, or has Davis overcome his existential lows and developed into a top notch player that will get used to extended periods of success rather than failure?
I’m not sure, but I think we’ll know soon.
And I, like always, will be rooting for Davis to have finally arrived for good.
1. Had I known anything about journalism that year, Davis likely would have been my first professional interview. Instead, I took up sportswriting in 2009 and Rangers’ first base prospect Justin Smoak was my first interviewee (check out that camera work!). Return
* denotes steroid user.
** denotes accused steroid user.