An awful lot of Orioles fans will say “good riddance” to the news that Chris Davis announced his retirement. And there is no question that Davis’ contract has turned out to be one of the biggest swings and misses ever not just in Birdland, but in all of baseball history.
The Orioles originally acquired Davis in July 2011 as part of a trade that sent reliever Koji Uehara to the Texas Rangers. A little-known fact about that deal: head executives Andy MacPhail and Jon Daniels had essentially agreed on a Uehara-for-Tommy Hunter swap. At the time, Uehara was evolving into an ace closer. The trade as structured wasn’t really fair. MacPhail had the chance to get Chris Davis thrown into the deal, but Davis cost a little bit extra.
MacPhail went back to club owner Peter Angelos and convinced his boss to loosen the purse strings to bring in a potential big-time slugger. McPhail got a yes from Angelos, and the Orioles sent the Rangers $2 million in cash. As such, Davis came to Baltimore along with Hunter.
The MacPhail regime morphed into the Dan Duquette regime after the 2011 season. In 2012, the Orioles made the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
Who doesn’t remember Orioles players running onto the field when they won that big game against the Rays? Davis picked up Nate McLouth and carried him around the celebration like he was a pet animal. Talk about heavy lifting.
And that is just what Davis did for the Orioles from 2012-2016. That last season happened to be the first season he played under his monstrous seven-year, $161 million pact.
In those five seasons, Davis slugged 197 homers and knocked in 496 runs while batting .249/.340/.518.
That included an absolutely dismal 2014 season in which Davis batted just .196 and was suspended 25 games for testing positive for Adderall. That suspension included the Orioles’ postseason games against the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals and lasted one game into the 2015 season.
Davis came back in 2015 — his last season before free agency — to bat .262/.361/.562 with 47 homers and 117 RBIs, seemingly proving that his failed 2014 season was in the past. In January 2016, the Orioles, apparently bidding only against themselves, committed to pay Davis $161 million for seven seasons. Included in that contract were significant deferrals ($42 million to be paid from 2023-2037).
In has been made clear by reporters that Davis will be paid in full. However, it sounds as if Davis’ 2022 salary ($17 million) will be added to his deferred money.
I’ll be the first to admit that I publicly lobbied for the Orioles to sign Davis. Had I known the contract would be for seven years and $161 million, I’m not sure I would have agreed with that. I was thinking more five years and between $105 million and $115 million. But I promise you to this day, had Davis signed elsewhere, I would have blasted Angelos for not going the extra mile.
So what happened that turned a feared slugger into an almost non-entity in the batter’s box?
While I am sure the size and scope of the contract itself played a part in swallowing up Davis, I point to a couple other areas. His ongoing health issues played a part, as did Davis’ stubbornness regarding how he would work toward regaining his lost skill-set.
But, I’ll tell you what I think became Davis’ unbeatable problem. Davis’ agent, Scott Boras, has pointed out that defensive shifts seem to hurt left-handed pull hitters the most. When I first read what Boras had to say about shifts, I noticed that another big-time hitter in the Boras tank was Bryce Harper. I recall saying, “Hmmm, his batting average and power numbers are down as well,” but for the most part I thought it was self-serving spin from Boras.
I never really paid all that much attention to that again until earlier this year, when I was listening to a Tampa Bay spring training radio broadcast with Baltimorean Andy Freed and Dave Wills, who have been doing Rays games since 2005.
I remember the two of them talking about the shift and its impact on left-handed hitters. Wills offered a stunning fact: Back in 2007 when Joe Maddon was hired as the manager of the Rays, the average left-handed hitter’s batting average was .272. In 2020, lefties hit .236.
When you see those numbers, you now realize Davis was simply not a talented enough hitter to figure that out. He was essentially being swallowed up swimming against the tide.
So, why I am not more passionately angry at Chris Davis? For one, nobody had a gun to the Orioles’ head to sign him to that contract. Davis, to his credit, did take the aforementioned deferrals to attempt to aid the club in being able to field a winning product during the length of his contract.
Did Davis’ collapse as a player contribute to the collapse of the ballclub? No question, but so did the erosion of Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, Matt Wieters and many more. And Davis wasn’t the only one given a bad contract — Darren O’Day and Mark Trumbo fit that bill, too. None of those contracts were endorsed or encouraged by Duquette at the time.
And then there is the charitable factor. In early November 2019, Chris and his wife Jill made a donation of $3 million to the Maryland Children’s Hospital. It’s a gift that will benefit generations of children here in our community.
Sometimes when you try to do big things, you swing and miss. And there is no question that the Davis era will be remembered as an awful big swing and miss. But I’ll fondly remember the slugger who put fear in the hearts of the pitchers he faced for a solid chunk of his Orioles career.
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