What Happened to Chris Davis This Season?

About to finish just the second season of a seven-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles, Chris Davis didn't put up his usual numbers in 2017.

When the Baltimore Orioles re-signed first baseman Chris Davis to a seven-year, $161 million deal prior to the 2016 season, it didn't seem like a great idea.

Sure, he provides plenty of power in the middle of manager Buck Showalter's lineup, but we've seen the impact a long-term contract awarded to a player on the wrong side of 30 does to a team's payroll. Heck, we're currently seeing it happen with Albert Pujols in Los Angeles and Miguel Cabrera in Detroit. At the very least, though, it wouldn't have been crazy for Baltimore's front office to think they could get a few more good years out of Davis before the decline really started.

But after leading the league with 47 home runs in 2015, the big first baseman has seen a downward trend over the last couple seasons with regard to his power. And unless he gets hot during this last week of the regular season, his current 93 wRC+ and 0.4 fWAR are on track to be his worst since 2014.

What changes can Davis make in order to rebound in 2018?

Similar But Different

In that trying 2014 season, Davis slashed .196/.300/.404 with 26 homers and 72 RBI in 525 plate appearances. As it turns out, there are a number of other stats that look awfully similar when we compare them to what he's done this year.

The below table shows his OPS, Isolated Power (ISO), home runs, RBI, wRC+ and fWAR from each campaign.

2014 525 .704 .209 26 72 94 0.8
2017 510 .737 .207 25 60 93 0.4

Baseball can be weird sometimes, guys. While Davis' 40.0% fly-ball rate is also very close to what he produced in 2014 (40.9%), two big differences lie in his BABIP and hard-hit rate.

His .242 BABIP from 2014 was easily a single-season career low, and while his past production told us that would probably bump up a little bit, his 36.0% hard-hit rate also told us the same thing. This year, his .305 clip on balls in play is much more in line with what he's done during his big league career, but it doesn't seem to match his 41.4% hard-hit rate, which ranks among the top 15 with regard to qualified hitters.

Could he have just encountered some bad luck this season?

His 266 wRC+ and .784 ISO on fly balls is virtually identical to what he did last season (275 and .787, respectively), as is his hard-hit rate for this batted-ball event (50.0% in 2017, 53.3% in 2016). The big change came in his performance on line drives, where his wRC+ has dropped to 360 (it was 414 last year).

That seems like he encountered bad luck, but both his hard-hit rate and pull rate have decreased nearly 10 percentage points during this period of time compared to 2016.

Do More Work in the Zone

What could help, though, is a shift in plate approach. Since Davis' first full season with Baltimore in 2012, he's transformed from a free-swinger to a much more selective hitter that can rack up a hefty number of walks. But is it doing him a disservice now?

The below table shows how his chase rate (O-Swing%) and swings on pitches inside the strike zone (Z-Swing%) have changed over the years, along with his walk rate (BB%).

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% BB%
2012 38.9% 77.6% 6.6%
2013 34.7% 74.5% 10.7%
2014 30.9% 70.4% 11.4%
2015 30.1% 72.2% 12.5%
2016 28.2% 64.1% 13.2%
2017 29.7% 59.9% 11.6%

It's great that his chase rate has been decreasing at a rather steady pace, but it'd be even better if his swings on strikes didn't take an even more precipitous dip. And after being above the league average in this department for a while, he's now below by a significant margin.

We can point to his 79.7% contact rate on balls in the strike zone -- which is on track to be his highest since 2012 -- and say that everything is fine. However, if a player isn't swinging as much and making the same amount of contact, it shouldn't be shocking that the rate increases.

The perfect balance for a hitter is to be selectively aggressive -- limit chasing pitches that aren't strikes and spend more time in the zone since that provides the highest opportunity to find success and really do some damage.

And Specifically on Fastballs

Another interesting thing that Davis has done this year is take a number of fastballs right down the middle for a called third strike. While this is obviously too small of a sample size to actually draw any conclusions from, what it can do is shed some light on his overall performance against this pitch this year, which has been the most common offering he's seen from opposing pitchers.

In 2015 -- a year in which he hit 47 homers with a 149 wRC+ -- Davis posted a 220 wRC+ against four-seam fastballs. That number has decreased dramatically over the past two seasons and is currently sitting at 96. His ISO has gone on a similar path (it's gone from .466 in 2015 all the way down to .228 so far in 2017), while his strikeout rate has spiked (30.7% in 2015 to 39.8% this year).

Moving Forward

Based off his skill set and pure strength -- along with playing in a division that has some parks conducive to offense, like Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards -- Davis will continue to rack up home runs as long as he stays healthy. We're talking about a disappointing 2017 season, yet he still has an outside shot of slugging 30 dingers.

That's good for fantasy baseball owners in need of those counting stats, but not as much for the Orioles, who are paying him a lot of money to be that overall productive offensive asset he's proven he can be in the past.

With his age-32 season on the horizon in 2018, time is quickly running out on his physical prime. Getting more aggressive at the plate when it's appropriate could help boost his production at least a little closer to what we've seen from the first baseman in recent years.