A few weeks ago, I thought Chris Davis only had an outside chance of hitting 30 home runs by the All-Star Break. The Orioles slugger had other ideas.
As I write this, Davis has 31 home runs on the year. Between now and the time you read this, that number may well have gone up. He has hit eight home runs in his last 13 games, which is an amazing, unsustainable pace -- that he's already matched one other time this year (May 18 to 29), and came close to matching during the first week of the season, belting six home runs in the first nine games -- but there's no real reason to group them up like that besides convenience. Davis has been on a year-long power surge, and it's not just the home runs. He's the first player in major league history to have 31 homers and 25 doubles before midseason. That's an arbitrary number, true (he's also the first player with 30 home runs and 25 doubles in that time frame, which is equally arbitrary), but it speaks to the show being put on by a hitter who has accumulated numbers that most hitters would love to have over a full season before the first day of July.
Twenty-five doubles -- that number is getting nowhere near as much play as his home run total, and why should it? Leading the league in doubles isn't part of the Triple Crown, and Davis doesn't lead the league in them -- his teammate Manny Machado does, with a seemingly-insurmountable 38, on pace to blow the single-season record of 67 by Earl Webb in 1931 out of the water. Davis's 25 ties him for third in baseball going into Tuesday's games, sharing the spot with the Angels' Mike Trout and Jay Bruce in Cincinnati, and one behind St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina. However, Machado actually has fewer extra base hits than Davis -- 46 to 56 -- because for all of his doubles, the Orioles third baseman has only hit six home runs. Davis has been the complete package so far, and leads all of baseball in slugging percentage, OPS, and total bases.
It's worth wondering, then, how this happens. Davis is three home runs away from passing his previous single-season high in homers, which he set last year. Jonah Keri at Grantland talked to Davis and the Baltimore coaching staff, who credited improvements in pitch recognition and approach along with adopting some of Miguel Cabrera's old hitting drills from Jim Presley's time with the Marlins. Davis himself said in an interview with Alanna Rizzo on MLB Network's Quick Pitch that the change of scenery that came with his trade -- no longer feeling like he had to live up to hometown expectations -- helped improve his focus.
There's also the fact that he uses a bat that's an inch longer and an ounce heavier than the average major league bat, a size and weight used only by himself, Alfonso Soriano, Josh Hamilton, and Brandon Phillips. None of these things on their own are able to transform a guy from an okay power bat into a legend -- Brandon Phillips hits well for a second baseman, after all, but he's not looking at a shot at 60 extra base hits by the All-Star Break -- but they all can help, given that the potential is already there.
It's a bit early to start talking about Davis in the same breath as Toronto slugger Jose Bautista, but the parallels are definitely there even if they hit from opposite sides of the plate. Both were highly-regarded, athletic corner infield prospects with great power potential but huge flaws in either their swings or their approaches.
Baseball history is full of guys like that and most of them never pan out, and those who do generally don't pan out immediately. Wily Mo Pena is still out there somewhere trying to figure out breaking balls, and Mets prospect Brandon Nimmo is running out of time to translate his raw power into success, Futures Game berth or not. Neither Davis nor Bautista was ever the sort of super-prospect that Bryce Harper or Trout or, going back a bit farther, Cabrera or Alex Rodriguez were -- Davis was taken in the fifth round of the 2006 draft by Texas and Bautista in the 20th round of the 2000 draft, and neither would find success with their first major league team.
In that same vein, it's probably silly to expect Davis to overtake Cabrera in the Triple Crown race simply because Cabrera has a baseline ability to hit for average Davis doesn't. But by that same token it's entirely reasonable to suspect that unless the wheels come off of Davis's season or Cabrera turns his hitting up yet another notch, Davis will continue to deny Miggy the HR lead.
For Orioles fans, though, most of this is academic at best. It's nice to know that, for instance, Davis should be able to sustain more of his power from this year than Brady Anderson did after the year he hit 50 home runs. But Anderson's 1997 didn't make his 1996 any less valuable, or any less fun. And with two of the best hitters in baseball right now, the Orioles are sitting pretty going into July -- so long as they can lock down the top of the rotation.
But hey, if Chris Davis really is Babe Ruth reborn, maybe he can help out with that too.