Chris Davis had the season dreams are made of in 2013. What came in 2014 was nothing short of a nightmare. Injuries, slumps, and a suspension tainted what Davis hoped would be an encore to his breakout year. Coming into this season, many people are channeling their inner Eminem and asking, "Will the real Chris Davis please stand up?"
The boring answer is 2015 will likely be better than 2014, but worse than 2013. I’ve covered how Davis got his swing locked in for 2013, but it’s important to understand how it fell apart in 2014. All the tools are still in place, Davis’ Herculean strength didn’t vanish, but the swing that harnesses his strength did. Add in an injury to a crucial muscle group and you have a recipe for failure. On top of all that, consider that Davis was visibly pressing as the season went on and his 26 home runs become fairly impressive.
Davis' swing was hampered by two key factors last summer. The first was a slight difference in how his upper body moved during the early part of his swing. The second was how his injury affected his ability to generate force in his swing. The first part is fairly easy to see. Davis has always had a distinct hand load, he starts his hands high and then lowers them to waist height as he pulls his hands into his body. There are two key reference points in this pattern.
The first is the angle between the end of his bat and his hands during the first part of his hand load. In 2013, his bat would be straight over his hands. This made it easy for him to cock the bat as he continued through his swing. Last season, the end of his bat actually got outside his hands, leading to him having extra distance to cover in the same amount of time in his swing.
His upper body gets to essentially the same position when his foot touches the ground in 2014, but how he got there was different. In 2013, his upper body could be smooth and fluid, but last year he had extra distance to cover, so his upper body moved at a quicker pace. This extra bat movement threw a wrench in Davis’ ability to time his own swing. Hitting big-league pitching is tough enough when a hitter’s internal timing is synced, but it’s damn near impossible when that timing is off.
The second issue I noticed is the height of his bottom hand after he initially lowers his hands. In 2013 he would lower his hands and his bottom hand would stay at the same height as he cocked the bat. Using the top of the dugout as a stationary point to gauge his hands height, we can see that in 2014 he lowered his hands in the same way, but now his bottom hand was floating back up just an inch or two before launching the bat. This extra movement is likely tied to the extra movement with his bat. He has to move his bat back to a cocked position more quickly than he is used to, and this force could very well move his hands as the bat moves.
Another view of 2013:
So even before his foot lands, Davis has one movement that impacts how he sets his bat that leads to another movement that harms how he launches the bat. He’s got 99 problems and his hands are two.
Make that three. For as much torque as Davis generates, he suffered one of the worst injuries possible. Even though his early-season oblique injury only put him on the shelf for the minimum time during his 15-day disabled list stint, I have a feeling it lingered with him all year. Maybe it didn’t actively cause him pain the whole year, but I have no doubt he couldn't tap into his core like he was able to in the past. His power only showed up to the pull side after his injury. This was because he could turn his upper and lower body at the same time to pull the ball, but the ability to open his hips and delay his top half, which would enable him to use left field, was gone.
The ability to delay how the upper half rotates around a stable lower half is key to staying on breaking balls and not just yanking them to the pull side. In the above images, the difference in the stability of his hips in 2013 compared to last year is evident. Thanks to a healthy midsection, the height of his hips stayed primarily in one place—watch his belt—in 2013. That wasn’t the case last summer, as his hips didn’t have that stability and appeared to bounce as they moved down, then rise up slightly before finally lowering at the conclusion of his swing. If proof is needed for how Davis’s oblique injury destroyed that ability to stay on off-speed pitches, one only need to look at his spray chart for hits against off-speed pitches in 2013 versus 2014.
Stealing a line from fellow BP author Russell Carleton, warning, gory math details ahead! In 2013, 48 percent of Davis’ extra-base hits came on off-speed pitches (46 out of 96), in 2014, that went down to 26 percent (11 out of 42). What’s interesting is that even after his 2013 success against the slow stuff, Davis saw a 4 percent increase (from 36 to 40) on off-speed pitches seen in 2014. That may not seem like much, but Davis is seeing thousands of pitches a season, so any change is a clear indication that pitchers were trying to exploit this new weakness.
Even though he hit fastballs, it wasn’t with the same thump as in the past. In the past, his hands would move down and hold there as he launched the bat, giving him a consistent firing point in his swing. He didn’t have that same consistent point in 2014. The one pitch any big-league hitter should be able to hit is a fastball down the middle, something Davis failed to do in 2014. He didn’t hit the pipe-shot fastballs, and his hand movements prevented him from consistently getting to his usual hot zone, up and away.
Two years ago, even though he holds his hands low, he destroyed high and away fastballs due to a lovely uppercut swing plane. This past season, the swing plane was the same, but his hands were too busy moving up then back down, so getting to those high pitches was very tough.
Imagine the frustration. You’re a big-league hitter and all of a sudden a swing change, one you may not even be able to feel, compounded with an injury leads to a bad season. The injury means you can’t hit the types of pitches you used to feast on that are now being thrown to you more often than ever before. Even if the pitcher does throw a fastball down the middle, you are juuusst missing it. Oh, and that hot zone you’ve always had? It’s gone.
This season will be a year where Chris Davis looks for redemption. He’s got his health back, and getting his swing back on track is a feat he’s pulled off once before. Personally, I hope he can do it again. Even if he doesn’t return to 2013 levels of baseball destruction, Davis can still be the hitter who instills fear in pitchers around the league.
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