Let’s start this by saying that the Baltimore Orioles are a better team when Chris Davis is Chris Davis.
When the big first baseman is slugging and carefree and wisecracking and pitch-smacking.
This team is usually better when Chris Davis is in the middle of the lineup, pacing a formidable offense.
But that time is not right now. Because Chris Davis is not right. He’s chasing terrible pitches. He’s letting good pitches go past him and then shaking his head in remorse. He’s not hitting the ball with authority to all parts of the park like he does when he’s torrid.
On Saturday, after surviving a miserable game Friday in which he went hitless in five at-bats and committed two errors, Orioles manager Buck Showalter dropped Davis from cleanup to sixth in the lineup.
It was a move that was a long time in coming – in his previous 104 starts this season, Davis had hit either third (15 times), fifth (13 times) or cleanup (76 times).
Showalter told reporters in Chicago on Saturday that the sixth spot is a temporary one for Davis. It fit better against White Sox lefty Carlos Rodon, but Showalter said Davis will be moved back up Sunday against right-hander James Shields.
That’s a mistake.
Showalter needs to keep Davis out of the cleanup spot for now. For one, it would take some pressure off a guy who entered Saturday night hitting .218 on the season and .125 in 18 second-half games with two RBIs and a stunning .141 slugging percentage. He struck out twice and walked twice Saturday. He has 22 homers this year, but none since July 10.
Changing the batting order for a struggling hitter is nothing new. Showalter did it earlier this year with Adam Jones, shifting him from his conventional three hole to leadoff, and Jones immediately got back on track.
Davis has always said that it doesn’t matter to him where he hits in the order (in his big league career, he has started at every spot except leadoff). But, deep down, he sees himself as a run producer, which he has been for most of his Orioles’ career. And that’s what he has to be in the cleanup role, especially with a guy like Manny Machado continually on base in front of him and Mark Trumbo leading the majors in homers behind him.
So you know it can’t feel good for Davis to be dropped in the lineup, even temporarily.
But keeping him there makes sense right now because, frankly, designated hitter Pedro Alvarez is also left-handed and is a better hitter than Davis currently.
In fact, it’s mind-boggling that Alvarez, who is batting .297 with nine homers and a .750 slugging percentage and homered six times in his last five games, was out of Saturday’s starting lineup (he’s never faced Rodon) while Davis was in it (he was 1-for-6 in his career versus Rodon before Saturday).
Showalter is one of baseball’s best managers, no doubt. And one of the reasons is because his best players believe he has their backs. The thought is, if you have a track record of performing, Showalter will stick with you through slumps as long as he can.
It builds trust and confidence, but it also can be Showalter’s biggest downfall. He tends to stick with track-record guys too long in certain situations and sometimes they just don’t turn it around. We all remember Showalter’s insistence on keeping Vladimir Guerrero at cleanup in 2011 when his power clearly was gone. Or how Bud Norris kept getting the ball every fifth day in 2015 when his confidence and arsenal were shot.
When Showalter is asked questions about sticking with some of these guys, he often shoots a question back at the reporter: “As opposed to whom?”
It’s his way of saying his options are limited. It’s also his subtle way of saying, “I’ve thought of everything, genius reporter, and I believe this is the right call.”
To be fair, Showalter’s often right. But he’s wrong on occasion. And, more times than not, it’s when he is sticking with a struggling veteran.
In this case, it’s hard to justify keeping Davis in the middle of the lineup when the red-hot Alvarez is the “whom.” Really, it’s hard justifying having Davis in the lineup facing lefties when Alvarez is this hot and Steve Pearce is back on the team and able to provide solid defense at first base. If a lefty is going to hit against a lefty, make it your better hitter, and that’s Alvarez for now.
The bottom line is that Davis has been in an ugly slump for an extended period. And we’ve seen it before, like when he hit .196 in the 2014 season.
We’ve also seen Davis go on tremendous tears, pick up this club and carry it on his wide shoulders. Let’s not forget he homered in five consecutive games this year and, in the final month of last season, he batted .318 with 12 homers and a .748 slugging percentage in 31 games.
With streaky power hitters, you live with the high highs and low lows. And, based on his history, Davis will ride full-throttle again. It’s why the Orioles gave him $161 million in the offseason.
I’m OK with being patient with him. With keeping him in the lineup (for the most part) and his good glove in the field and wait for him to be Chris Davis again.
But there’s no good reason not to bat him sixth or seventh or eighth for a while. It may allow him to relax some while putting guys who are swinging hotter bats in better positions to drive in runs.