Power, Expectation, And Chris Davis

No player more embodies both the truth and the inherent strangeness of the Three True Outcomes more than Baltimore's biggest-swinging galoot.
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I was watching the Orioles and Red Sox the other night—half-watching, really, in a manner that ensured I would remember one play from the game, if that. The play I ended up remembering was this: Baltimore slugger Chris Davis, batting with one on and one out in the eighth inning, hit something a little loopier than a line drive into right field. Mookie Betts tracked it on an intuitive diagonal, dived at the right moment, and nabbed it before it touched down. It was the kind of this-then-that that separates big-league baseball from every other level of the sport, and also from every other sport. Remarkable skill and athleticism and technique delivered so casually and quickly that its shorthand seems somehow fitting. F9.

Betts, of course, was the hero of the moment. He succeeded at his task; Davis failed at his. Betts wasn’t the reason that the play stuck, though. Rather, I kept thinking about how the ball came off of Davis’s bat, the way it topspun toward the corner of the field. Davis was trying to hit a homer, as he always is, and so this failure that nevertheless challenged one of the game’s best defenders had an emotional warble to it. Disappointment, then hope, then disappointment again.

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Chris Davis is six feet three inches tall and weighs 230 pounds, which is certainly big enough to qualify as “hulking,” although he is not quite that. He would be, maybe, if he grew a scruffy beard, or grimaced, or wagged his bat, or otherwise presented any image at the plate but the one he actually does. The non-hypothetical Davis has instead a smoothed-over bigness; he looks like a formerly craggy boulder that has sat for a very long time at the bottom of a very swift river. His face is round and relaxed, with a pellet of chew tucked neatly into the lower lip. In the left-handed batter’s box, Davis stands upright but not rigid, swirling his bat as if aerating a glass of wine. His expression resolves confidence and patience into a stock baseball player image. His swing is a beauty, but if you’ve seen it once you’ve seen it entirely: a tracked U-shaped heave, the same every time, whether at a fastball or curve, whether connecting flush or missing by six inches.

Davis, who over his five-and-change seasons in Baltimore has hit 200 home runs, stands in for the institutionally yard-going Orioles, but he stands in for the broader trends of baseball even more. Today’s mashers, wise to the cost-benefit ratio of homers and strikeouts, always take full hacks, and nobody adheres to the program more religiously than Davis. A whiff doesn’t bother him; situational hitting is a myth. In the second or seventh innings, with the bases loaded or empty, Davis aims the baseball at Pluto.

I will admit: he’s a type of player I tend not to like. I prefer do-it-all types, players who when given nine innings will announce themselves in two or three discreet ways—players like Mookie Betts. I like when hitters revise their swings, shortening up to flick a pitch the other way, and when defenders can do something other than stand largely at first to provide a target for Manny Machado. Davis has all the athletic charisma of a rolled die. Sometimes, according to nothing but repeated chance, he turns up a fortunate number, and this season he hasn’t even done that all that often, tallying four bombs against 44 Ks.

Except Davis’ dedication is so defined that he draws a slanted sort of attention. Visually, it’s true, he doesn’t offer much—the big guy takes another big swing, the sky’s still up, the ground’s still down—but to the sense of expectation he is downright hallucinatory. The wished-for homer seems too fitting, the accepted strikeout too obvious. A roller up the middle—how would that even come about, given the massive motion behind it? A towering fly ball pulled foul may be the most appropriate Davis result, but of course a plate appearance can’t end that way; things have to resolve in some less aesthetically apposite form. So he singles to left somehow or pops out to shallow center and reacts the same either way, shaking his head, clearing the aberrational static.

I was watching some other Orioles game a few days after the one against Boston, and Davis came up again. I don’t remember the situation. The pitcher put a fastball on the outside corner, and Davis swung over it for strike three. He didn’t lean or stretch, as a lot of hitters do when a swing-and-miss pulls them off their axes. He just made his big sweep, totally balanced, and found only air. Afterwards, he shrugged, I think. Anyway, he looked contented enough with the outcome—one at-bat closer to the next home run, in his mind. I was perplexed, though. I was sure he wouldn’t strike out, just as I was sure he wouldn’t homer, or single, or hit a grounder, or do anything prescribed by the tenets of the game. I expected, paradoxically, to be surprised. And I didn’t know what that would mean.


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