When Chris Became Crush

130630213958-chris-davis-orioles-record-single-image-cutAfter popping his 49th homer of the season against the Yankees on Tuesday night, slugger Chris Davis now stands just 1 blast shy of the Baltimore Orioles single-season record, set by Brady Anderson back in 1997. Davis still has an outside shot at making a run at Roger Maris’ AL record of 61 homers as well, but that’s looking a little bit more like wishful thinking as we wind toward October.

But even without the AL home run record, what Chris Davis has done this season has been nothing short of phenomenal. He’s entirely remade his swing, showed remarkable plate discipline, and perhaps most importantly, Davis has finally figured out how to hit an off-speed pitch.

Those breaking balls, which used to give Davis fits back in his Texas days, are now sailing over the fence at a greater frequency than any other player in baseball. In 226 at-bats this season against pitches that Brooks-Baseball classifies in either the off-speed or breaking category, Davis has hit .294 with 23 homers and 20 doubles. That’s All-Star/MVP level production without even taking into account all the damage the 1st baseman has done against fastballs this year and, when compared to his days in Texas, his performance is as different as night and day.

So how did Chris Davis fare against those very same pitches as a Ranger? Well, not terribly, but it’s nothing to write home about either. He hit .220 with 19 homers in 344 at-bats against off-speed and breaking pitches, but the biggest problem was the strikeouts. Davis struck out 38% of the time he was faced with a breaking ball and to make matters worse, he displayed very little knowledge of the strike zone while doing it.

If we delve deeper into the numbers, things look even better for Davis. According to Fangraphs, he currently ranks 1st in baseball in value produced on change-ups and sliders while posting positive value against the curve for the first time since 2009. For some perspective on those pitch values consider the fact that Davis has been worth 16 runs above average against the change-up in his career and 12 of those aforementioned runs have come during the 2013 season. That goes double for the slider and curveball as well.

A big part of this improvement is centered on Davis’ stance at the plate. Davis currently stands very tall at the plate and when his swing is working properly he has an exaggerated hand drop to go along with a fairly large leg kick. The hand drop and leg kick work in tandem to act as a trigger mechanism, which allows Davis to get his hands inside the ball, thus creating poetry in motion.

Back when he was in Texas, Davis was told a couple of different things. He was coached to crouch more at the plate while his leg stride was cut down and his hand movement, or trigger mechanism, was cut short. Davis has a naturally long swing, one that takes a lot of time to load, and the Rangers where hoping that by dropping some of the swing’s slower aspects, they could discover a better hitter within. Unfortunately the move backfired and robbed Davis of much of his power and by 2010 he was a borderline big leaguer at best.

“They (Rangers’ coaches) thought that because my head dropped and moved forward, that’s why I swung at pitches in front of the plate so often,” Davis said in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “They thought it looked to me like the pitch was getting closer. But what I found was that the sooner I’m able to make that move, the better (pitch) recognition I have. And that’s something I had to figure out for myself.”

Davis did figure that out for himself and now he’s developed into one of baseball’s best hitters. He’s no longer trying to just make contact with the ball as he used to do in Texas. Davis is now attempting to hit his opponent’s offerings with authority. His walk rate is up to a career high 10.6%, which is nearly double his previous best and most importantly, he looks completely comfortably at the plate.

Big thanks to Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Brooks Baseball for the statistical help.

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