Can Chris Davis be Saved?
If you’re a Baltimore Orioles fan and not living under a rock, you’re no doubt aware of the struggles being faced by first baseman Chris Davis. He’s not only hitless on the young season (0 for 23), but a staggering 0 for his last 44 dating back to last year as well.
It’s gone from bad to worse for Davis, whose last above-average offensive season was in 2016, when he hit .221/.332/.459. Even then, he led the league with 219 strikeouts — a career-high mark — but he also pasted 38 homers in 157 games.
He took a step back in 2017, hitting .215/.309/.423 for a 96 OPS+, but that wasn’t unprecedented for Davis. In his age-28 season, Davis also posted the same mark, but then bounced back for one of the best seasons of his career in 2015: .262/.361/.562 (147 OPS+).
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The second 96 OPS+ came in Davis’ age-31 season, making a rebound certainly not impossible, but obviously less probable than before. Instead, Davis plunged further into the abyss, slashing .168/.243/.296 as both he and the team found new depths of struggling.
This year has been an even further descent, as his 50 OPS+ last year has given way to a minus-53 mark this season. But let’s forget about this season for a second — we are certainly aware he’d like to — and focus on 2018 for a second.
Doing a side-by-side comparison for rough seasons can be a difficult task. A lot of times, teams will relieve a player of their misery by designated them for assignment, demoting them or just plain benching them.
Davis wasn’t so lucky, since he was owed more than $100 million at the outset of the 2018 season.
And as a brief aside, in this current age of, uh, contracts — call it collusion or whatever you want — we still see the super elite talents getting the big contract extensions. However, we’ve seen the MLB middle class sort of shoved to the side, and it’s allowed us a small window to look at some of the existing or recently-expired deals to see just how badly they panned out — or in Davis’ case, are still going.
It’s kind of striking how many of these ugly deals were given to first basemen who without question were not going to age well. Ryan Howard, Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols are just a few names who come to mind. Then there’s Davis, who signed a seven-year, $161 million deal with the Orioles prior to the 2016 season that much like Howard’s was maligned from the moment the pen hit paper.
Who were the Orioles bidding against, exactly? At the time, signing in late January like Davis did was considered to be a pretty strong indicator that a player’s market wasn’t as strong as they’d anticipated or hoped.
Yet here was Davis, locking in $23 million paydays through his age-36 season (2022). It’s hard to believe there are almost four years and $92 million left on this albatross.
But let’s dig into that age-32 seasons, and try to compare as many players as we can in that season historically. We can tweak the minimums if need be, since again, a lot of those guys don’t end up racking up the 120-plus games or 500-plus plate apperances Davis did.
A quick trip to Fangraphs along with a few button clicks shows us the best age-32 seasons in MLB history. Click here to follow along.
Babe Ruth hit .356/.486/.772 in his age-32 season for a 212 wRC+. The main offensive currency at Fangraphs is wRC+, which is an awful lot like OPS+ for our purposes here. Typically the difference is only a few points here or there, like Davis posting a 46 wRC+ in 2018 compared to a 50 OPS+.
For our purposes, it doesn’t matter that much.
The worst age-32 season ever was Freddie Maguire in 1931, as he hit just .228/.259/.272 in 544 plate appearances. This year’s Brian Dozier and Gerardo Parra show up, but that’s just because we have ‘qualified’ checked.
Let’s change it to a minimum of 500 plate appearances. That will bring in Davis and clear out some of the chum we’re looking at.
Alright, here we go. Davis had the third-worst age-32 season ever. Maguire jumps back into the fold and we have a new leader — 1990’s Alfredo Griffin.
There’s just so much offensive futility that it’s kind of hard to find another player to compare to in order to see if any sort of rebound is possible.
In this case, I’ll do with the 2000 season of Mike Lansing. Even still, Lansing was only a marginally useful middle infielder who really, really struggled between Colorado and Boston that season.
How wild was the offensive environment in Colorado that year? Lansing hit .258/.315/.419 — not entirely unlike what Davis’ raw totals were in 2017 — but instead of a 96 OPS+, he checked in at 68 and completely fell down the stairs a la Clint Barmes upon leaving Denver.
The Rockies traded him in the most “nobody in this deal really ever did anything” trade you could imagine which involved seven players — Lansing, Rolando Arrojo, Rich Croushore, Jeff Tagleinti, Jeff Frye, Brian Rose and John Wasdin.
Lansing hit just .194/.230/.223 in 49 games with the Red Sox — a 15 OPS+. In 2001 — his age-33 season — Lansing had a dead-cat bounce of a 77 OPS+.
But that won’t be enough to salvage any sort of value in the case of Davis. Lansing came back because he had a guaranteed deal worth $6.25 million in his age-33 season. In today’s money, according to Baseball Reference, that’s just shy of $9 million.
Wanting to keep Davis around just in case he finds something and can be flipped with beaucoup bucks to a contender for a decent prospect in return just isn’t going to happen.
It’s one thing to have Davis play out the string until a viable replacement can be found; it’s another to let him completely embarrass himself.
That’s not to say the Orioles need to save him from himself while paying him what the contract calls for, from an ethics standpoint — but Davis isn’t under any obligation to walk away from the deal, either.
A mutual parting is the best decision for both sides. Tyler Austin — DFA’d by the Twins over the weekend and traded to the Giants on Monday — might have been a reasonable contingency plan in the interim while the Orioles rebuild, but the honest truth is that it isn’t hard to find a better option.
Logan Morrison is still a free agent. So is Danny Valencia. The same goes for Evan Gattis, Matt Holliday and Jose Bautista.
Each of those players is unemployed; each of them still presents a much, much better chance of getting a return on the investment than Chris Davis.
It’s time, Baltimore. Do the right thing.
Warne is a Minnesota Twins beat reporter for 105 The Ticket's Cold Omaha website as well as a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. He also contributes to FanGraphs / RotoGraphs.