Sunday, July 14, 2013
Would Chris Davis be the true HR king?
By David Schoenfield
Chris Davis hit his 37th home run on Sunday, his fourth straight game with a homer, and he is now on pace for
You know what that means, right?
Let the controversy begin. It's already starting to ramp up a bit. It will not be avoided if Davis mounts a charge to 62: Roger Maris is the "real" home run champion with the 61 he hit in 1961, and if Davis hits 62, he'll surpass Maris as the legitimate single-season record holder.
Davis himself considers Maris the record holder, telling ESPN's "Mike & Mike" in early July that "the reason being, he was the last guy to do it clean. There's a lot of things that have been said about the guys who have come after him and have achieved the record, but I think as far as the fans are concerned they still view Maris as being the all-time home run record [holder] and I think you have to. There's no doubt that Barry [Bonds] and Mark [McGwire] and any of those guys had ridiculous seasons and had some great years, but I think when you get to the root of the record, I still think it's Roger Maris.'"
My guess is that most fans would agree with Davis, that McGwire's 70 home runs in 1998 and Bonds' in 73 are tainted, tarnished and achieved in unethical ways.
And thus don't count.
That may be true. Except the not counting part. The record is the record, and Bonds is the single-season home run champion. What people believe or desire shouldn't factor into the argument; well, you can argue, but I'm not buying. We can't pretend that Bonds didn't hit 73; we can't wipe out an entire era and pretend it didn't exist. Barry Bonds hit 73 baseballs over the fence in 2001, and 73 is the record.
But brace yourself for a non-ending stream of columns, sports radio chatter, Twitter posts and the like. When Davis appears before the media on Monday in New York in preparation for the All-Star Game, he's going to be mobbed more than other player: Can you do it?
Look, it's an amazing story. Davis is now slugging .717. Not including Davis this season, there have been 35 seasons in which a player slugged .700 -- and all but four occurred in the 1920s and '30s, or between 1994 to 2004. The four outlier seasons: Ted Williams in 1941 and 1957, Stan Musial in 1948 and Mickey Mantle in 1956. Davis' performance would remain historic in nature, no matter his final home run tally.
Will he get to 62? He has said his big difference is that he has learned the strike zone; his selectivity and patience have helped him wait for better pitches to drive. His walk rate is up 3.2 percent from last year, one sign of his patience. Another sign is his ability to drive the ball to left field -- 11 of his 37 home runs are classified as opposite field, most in the majors (Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto and Adam Dunn each have seven). But Davis has hit another five just to the left of center field and he's hitting .537 when putting the ball in play to the opposite field -- second in the majors to Jason Kipnis' .556.
Davis' year reminds me a little of what Reggie Jackson did in 1969. Reggie was younger -- he was 23, Davis is 27 -- but had a monster first half, hitting .287 with 37 home runs and a .716 slugging percentage in 91 games (the Orioles have played 96 games). There was talk of Reggie dethroning Maris, but he would hit just 10 home runs in the second half (the 47 would remain his career high).
There are two majors differences: Reggie has said the talk of beating Maris created added pressure on him and, as a young player, he didn't deal with it very well, trying too hard to hit home runs. Davis is older, although nobody can predict how a player will handle the pressure if it gets to that point. Reggie also played in Oakland, a tough home run park; Camden Yards is generous in the power alleys, so that will help Davis.
One thing working against Davis, however, is that Buck Showalter continues to hit Davis fifth in the order, choosing to bat Adam Jones cleanup between lefties Nick Markakis and Davis. That will cost Davis plate appearances over the season -- an estimated 30 over the entire year, if he was hitting third instead of fifth -- and those 30 missing PAs could be the difference between 59 and 62. With Matt Wieters not having a great year behind him, Davis may also start receiving more walks (although July has produced his lowest walk rate of the season, so pitchers haven't been pitching around him).
Hey, I hope he makes 62 an interesting number to watch for in late September. A lot of fans will consider 61 the record and that will make for a fun, engaging stretch drive if Davis gets close. It won't be The Record but it will get people watching baseball, and that's a good thing.