By Joe Lemire
NEW YORK -- Before the gaudy home run total (53) or the awards (All-Star appearance and Silver Slugger) or even the collectible action figure (Aug. 2 at Camden Yards), Chris Davis went to play ball at the University of Texas but left the school after just one semester, transferring to Navarro College where he would get more playing time. That's how he ended up appearing in a junior college tournament in Shreveport, La., in the spring of 2005.
Among the scouts in attendance that weekend was Chad MacDonald, whose coverage area for the Angels included north Texas and Louisiana. It was there that Navarro's oversized third baseman made a lasting impression.
"For two days in a row, they couldn't get him out," said MacDonald, now an assistant general manager with the Padres. "He had power to left, power to right. Good arm. I didn't know much about him except that he was really physically pretty good."
If Davis hadn't been so big -- he's listed on the Orioles' roster at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds -- MacDonald thinks he could have stayed at third base because of his athleticism and arm. That strength also manifested in the indiscriminate way he sprayed baseballs to all fields at all distances.
"He had what we call late power," MacDonald said.
He was referring to Davis' ability to swing late on middle-away pitches and drive them out of the ballpark to left-centerfield, but "late power" is a fairly apt term for Davis' career trajectory too.
He didn't sign with the Angels when they took him in the 35th round in 2005, just as he hadn't signed with the Yankees after being taken in the 50th round out of high school. After Davis spent a second year at Navarro, however, the Rangers selected him in the fifth round of the 2006 draft. He powered his way quickly through the minors, initially reaching the majors in just two years, but the success of a promising rookie season (17 homers, .880 OPS in 80 games) quickly dissipated.
Over the course of the 2009-11 seasons, Davis shuttled between the Rangers and their Triple A affiliate. With the former, Davis struggled: .238 average, .289 OBP, 253 strikeouts in 217 games and an adjusted OPS 20 percent below the league standard; in the lower circuit, however, he continued to mash, with no stat line more eye-popping than his 48 games with Triple A Round Rock in '11: 24 home runs in 48 games, a remarkable sustained rate of every other game, to go along with a preposterous .824 slugging percentage and 1.229 OPS. He was turning into a classic Quadruple A player.
"Early in my career, I tried to be something I wasn't," he said. "There was probably a little lack of self-trust at some point."
"I was young when I first came up to the big leagues," continued Davis, who was promoted at age 22, "and didn't really understand how to [make adjustments]. Struggled. Got sent down. Had never really struggled before and learned a lot about myself, and I think that was -- whether I liked it or not -- a huge growing point in my life."
The next chapter of his career path has become oft-told to explain his rise to prominence: the Rangers traded him to the Orioles along with righthander Tommy Hunter for reliever Koji Uehara, and in Baltimore Davis finally had the opportunity to play every day and his offensive production exploded.
Now that his power has arrived in the big leagues -- what next?
Off the field, Davis seems to have accepted his success humbly. Even with a large payday looming in arbitration (he got $10.35 million), Davis says he didn't make a splurge purchase. He didn't call his agent for exclusive tickets. He didn't go out and bask in his newfound stardom. Instead, he retreated to Texas and spent time with his family, whom he didn't see as much during the season in Baltimore. His wife, Jill, is pregnant with their first child. The only indulgence he divulged was going hunting.
"I keep a pretty low profile," he said. "I spent time with my family and just enjoyed being around them."
Davis smacked 33 home runs in 2012, an enviable season by most standards, but leading the majors with 53 homers in '13 is what put him on the map and granted him membership in an exclusive club. Davis became only the 27th player to hit at least 50 homers in a season, something that has been done only 43 times. Two-thirds of those players, 18, reached 50 only once in their careers.
"For [Davis] to have the year he had last year, it's unfair to him to expect him to do that year in and year out," Baltimore hitting coach Jim Presley said. "That's some of the best offense I've seen in my time in the game."
The 50-homer sluggers' encore seasons range greatly. The most notorious drop off belongs to another man who wore an Orioles' uniform, Brady Anderson, who hit 50 home runs in 1996 and then just 18 in '97; he never exceeded 24 for the rest of his career. The largest numerical regression occurred more than eight decades ago, when Hall of Famer Hack Wilson hit 56 homers in 1930 and then just 13 in '31 -- in fact, he didn't even match his 56 over the final four seasons of his career, in which he totaled only 51.
On the whole, the cohort did well, averaging 42 homers the following season. Five players followed up their first 50-homer season by reaching the threshold again the following year. Though he's hitting well so far in 2014 -- 12-for-43 (.279 average) with three doubles and five walks -- he didn't hit his first home run until Sunday.
Asked about the difficulty of repeating the feat, Davis said, "I think the biggest thing for me to remember is -- like you said -- you're not going to hit 50 home runs every year. I hit 30 the year before. I hit 50 last year. Everyone was like, Did you think you were going to hit 50? I didn't know. There's no way to predict it. If there was, there'd be no point in going out and playing the game.
"The biggest thing for me is to continue to do whatever I can to help this team be successful."
Working in his favor is a technically sound swing. The original assessment of late power, after all, was used in purely mechanical sense and remains true. If one were to look at Davis' 2013 home run chart without a name attached to it, you'd probably expect such even distribution belonged to a switch hitter, rather than a player swinging only from one side of the plate. That ability to stay inside the ball with his swing shows the discipline of a good hitter, not just a good power hitter. Even though he struck out 199 times last season, he batted .286.
"I've always had power," Davis said. "It's a blessing and a curse at the same time. The biggest thing for me is learning how to use it the right way."
Even though that comment was made in the context of swing mechanics, it sounds like something a superhero would say -- fitting, perhaps, for a man with an action figure and a humble alter ego.
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Joe Lemire is a former Sports Illustrated staff writer and current New York-based freelance writer who can be found on Twitter at @LemireJoe.