MLB.com Columnist

Mike Petriello

Davis' bounceback sets him up for big payday

O's first baseman has regained power stroke thanks to success vs. hard heat

Davis' bounceback sets him up for big payday

Chris Davis entered 2015 as arguably the biggest unknown in baseball. In '13, Davis smashed a franchise-record 53 homers and was worth 7.1 WAR, representing one of the 10-best seasons in Orioles history. For a follow-up in '14, Davis' production level collapsed, as he put together a replacement-level year that included a .196 batting average and a late-season suspension after testing positive for amphetamines associated with the drug Adderall.

So, four months into 2015, what's the verdict thus far? If you're an O's fan who watches the club every night, you've probably noticed that Davis has had a surprisingly strong bounceback season. For those who haven't watched as closely, welcome to the 30-homer party. Davis' 139 Weighted Runs Created Plus score makes him 39 percent better than a league-average hitter. He's one of the 20 most dangerous hitters in baseball, putting up a better score than marquee names like Jose Abreu, Albert Pujols, and Todd Frazier.

That's particularly been true since the All-Star break, as Davis' 12 homers rank as the third most in baseball behind only Carlos Gonzalez and Nelson Cruz. He's hit three in the last three days, including a game-tying homer in Seattle on Monday night in Baltimore's 3-2 loss to the Mariners, making him only the  fifth Oriole ever with three 30-homer seasons. As you can see from the Statcast™ trends, his batted-ball distance has been headed in the right direction all season long:

It's only the second week of August, and Davis already has five more homers than he did all of last year. His rebound hasn't come from bringing down his typically hefty swing-and-miss rate, though. Davis' 31.0 percent strikeout rate is only slightly lower than 2014's 33.0 mark, and it ranks as the fourth highest in baseball. His overall swing, contact and plate discipline peripherals are also almost identical to what they were last year.

What has worked in Davis' favor, however, is the return of his ability to handle the hard heat. Last year, against four-seam fastballs, Davis batted just .178 with a .357 slugging percentage. This year, he's up to a .286 average with an eye-popping .771 slugging percentage. Let's take a look at the highest slugging percentage against pitches throwing 95 mph or higher (minimum 35 plate appearances making contact against those pitches):

1. Mark Teixeira, .871
2. Daniel Murphy, .821
3. Jose Bautista, .796
4. Josh Donaldson, .786
5. Davis, .692

That's three superstars, Davis, and the surprising appearance of Murphy.

One possible explanation for Davis' turnaround -- his slugging percentage against those pitches was just .344 in 2014 -- is the simplest one: health. Late last April, Davis went to the disabled list with a strained left oblique. And while he missed only a few weeks, he later told the Baltimore Sun that the injury had "bothered him all the way into the offseason." (Though Davis hadn't been pounding the ball in 22 games before the injury, it was too small of a sample size to draw an informed conclusion.)

Now, Davis is set to go into free agency as a 30-year-old first baseman who can also play a bit of third and right field, and he has more hit homers than anyone since 2012. (His 143 top Edwin Encarnacion by 10.) With Toronto likely to pick up Encarnacion's team option, the only other intriguing free-agent first basemen are Mike Napoli (who turns 34 in October and is in the midst of a miserable year) and Davis' Orioles teammate Steve Pearce (who will be 33 in April and has one good year on his resume).

A year ago, Davis' future was very uncertain. Now? He's still a risk, and the strikeouts will always be there. However, in a market that is always starved for power, and with few other options at first, Davis is poised to strike it big, potentially topping $100 million. That fits, though -- whether he's making powerful contact or whiffing completely, everything Davis does is big.

Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) is an analyst for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.