March 14, 2014
The Many Swings of Chris Davis
Chris Davis came into the major leagues in 2008 as a highly touted slugger from East Texas who was expected to hit monster home runs in bunches. He hit 17 home runs in a little less than half a season, but the next three seasons were the most frustrating three years of his baseball career. That began a stretch during which his swing was under heavy scrutiny and suffered numerous ill-advised changes. Davis was chosen for this article because the swing changes he made or was encouraged to make are some of the “go-to” changes hitting coaches will push upon their players.
Let’s look at bright-eyed Chris Davis as he hits a home run in his first year in the show. Here he has an upright stance coupled with some moving parts. He loads his hands down and tight to his body as his front leg moves. Not the simplest move, and Davis seemed to be in organization that considered simpler better. There is obvious intent to hurt the baseball in his swing, but that intent wouldn't translate into production until three years later, when he was traded away from the Rangers.
Take a moment to get familiar with the identity of Chris Davis. He holds his hands very deep, with his back elbow at a 90-degree angle. During the gather phase of his swing he uses a decent-sized leg lift combined with a slight lowering of his hands. His natural approach is incredible for a power hitter. Watch his hips. The front of his hips angles up while he inwardly rotates his back hip just a bit. He then lines his whole swing up with his hip to give an upward trajectory to the ball. He torques his hips back early then aggressively begins to open them, all while holding his shoulders square. This is great hip flexibility. The one drawback is his back knee. It ends up in a great place but is a tad late getting there. Watch how Davis’ back knee rotates back toward the catcher before driving forward and down. If 2008 Chris Davis wanted to get everything into the ball he had to commit extremely early.
At this stage, Davis had to commit to the ball prematurely, but the changes he made in an attempt to rectify this issue were superficial.
Here Davis has essentially the same stance, but the movement of his front leg is much smaller. Everything appears smooth and relaxed, but Davis’ numbers didn't reflect a positive change in his swing. This is not the best angle, but look at his back leg. See how it snaps through well after the ball is off the bat. Let’s do some baseball algebra. His back knee was timed to fire after his front leg had been moving for X amount of time. With a smaller leg lift, his front leg is further through his swing progression at time X. His backside is now playing catch-up.
At this point, David was demoted to Triple-A, and the parade of new swing changes accelerated.
The stance is now much wider with more bend in his legs. He is also holding the bat lower. His stride is still small and contained, and his hands barely move at all. Even though his extremities are relatively calm, his whole torso bends and drifts toward the plate. There is no momentum in this swing. It’s only through pure strength that he can hit this ball out. His follow-through falls off to the side.
The next change was to lower his stride again, which made him land in a different pattern than the one to which he was accustomed. Watch his front foot. Davis naturally moves his front foot and knee in unity, but ere they are disjointed. His knee comes down and then his foot kicks out onto a more pointed landing position.
Davis is back to his narrow and upright stance of old, but his hands are even lower. The stride is minimal, and he lands on a deliberately pointed foot. This is where Davis really got lost; his stride isn’t doing anything for him here. The point of a stride is to get a hitter’s energy going forward. In this swing Davis slides his foot forward but has generated no momentum; all he's done is widen his stance. It’s likely that he was being told to get his front foot down earlier. Some hitters can make this adjustment with great success, like David Wright, who lands on a pointed toe, then transfers his weight forward, plants the heel, and fires the swing.
Look at Davis' posture here. Remember, as a rookie he set his hip angle very early and then rode it out through the progression of his swing. With his foot being down so early he has no chance to set his hips. The hips try to reach their natural alignment at the very end of the swing out of habit, but the hips are at one angle and the shoulders at another. Imagine playing tetherball on a pole with a big kink in the middle. Without a stable axis to fire his swing around, his stroke is on life support.
Davis is back in the majors. Stance is upright and hands are back about shoulder high. He’s gotten rid of that terrible striding pattern. Now when he strides he brings his momentum with him. He has also aligned his posture better, leading to a stronger follow-through. His balance is much better compared to his swing in the previous months.
Davis is returning to his natural stance and stride. He’s back to using a higher leg lift, and his aggressive hand-loading movement shows up. With the Orioles, he reclaims another small but significant mechanical feature. As a Ranger, he had tried to keep his head still, likely thinking that it would help him see the ball. The Orioles let him move his head however he wants. His head now moves forward and down over the duration of his swing. His backside is much smoother with Baltimore. That back knee doesn’t appear to snap at the end of the swing. Rather, it works in unison with the front side.
Davis is becoming the homer-hitting machine he was always meant to be. His swing looks like it did when he was rookie. Everything is a bit slower and more controlled. Pay attention to the timing between his hands moving down and in and his leg moving forward. It’s an athletic movement not seen since his rookie season. His hips clear through the zone much earlier. He keeps his hands in tight so the early clearing off his hips actually increases his torque. In Texas, Davis tinkered with a handful of unnatural movements. The Orioles slowed down his stride, refined the movement of his back knee, and allowed him to clear his hips earlier.
The monster is out of his cage. Davis' swing is now a finely tuned piece of horsehide-demolishing machinery. Five years later, that superfluous movement of his back knee toward the catcher is gone.
Let’s look at four things in Davis’ swing and compare how he dealt with them while with the two organizations he's played for.
The Upright and Narrow Stance
O’s: Upright and narrow; don’t sit back on the back leg quite so much.
Head moving forward and down
O’s: Keep it smooth.
O’s: Slow it down just a bit
The aggressive hand-load
O’s: No issue with the hand-load.
This is not meant to blast the Rangers. Swinging a baseball bat is a complex movement pattern. While with the Rangers, Davis tried to adopt a new pattern on several occasions. The Orioles worked within his pre-existing pattern to maximize the overall movement.
The bigger issue here is how every mechanical change will alter a hitter’s timing within his own swing. It appears that Davis' natural timing pattern was to slot his hands back from their starting position and into his body as his front leg rose up then down. Once his foot does get down he immediately launches the bat through the zone.
When Davis changes his starting hand position, he changes how long it will take to slot his hands back. When his stride changes, his timing is altered again. His natural tendency is for his hands to be deepest in his stance just after his front knee starts tracking to the ground. With a smaller stride, his knee tracks down at a different time.
Davis is the type of hitter whose swing launches as soon as the front toe touches down. When he touched his toe down to the grounder earlier, he changed his timing. Landing on a pointed toe so early in his swing progression also put him in a much weaker position and destroyed his natural sense of timing. On top of that, restricting his head's forward motion changed how he saw the ball.
You might be wondering whether Davis made these changes on his own during his time in Texas. That’s entirely possible, but the changes he made (widen out, lower the hands, quiet the stride, get the foot down earlier, keep the head still, etc.) are some of those most commonly recommended by hitting coaches. These “corrections” are made in the hope of minimizing error while increasing balance and control within a swing.
The Orioles, however, saw a power hitter. Power hitters need their legs to drive the swing, and the O's made sure that Davis' legs established a strong position early to provide a powerful foundation. As a Ranger, Davis tried to minimize risk in his swing. As an Oriole, he's maximized the reward.