Hank Aaron never hit as many as 53 home runs in a season. Neither did Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Frank Robinson nor Mike Schmidt.
So with 53 homers going into the final game, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is not only the most prolific single-season slugger in club history. He’s part of a select group that includes just 17 power hitters in baseball history.
As the Orioles wrap up their season Sunday, short of the playoffs, it’s worth reflecting on what a rare show Davis gave Baltimore fans in 2013.
He found that hard to do himself, talking about his season the day after the Orioles were eliminated from postseason contention. “It’s hard to reflect and look back on personal accomplishments right now, because I still have a sour taste in my mouth,” Davis said.
The enjoyment will come with time, manager Buck Showalter said. “They’re going to do that regardless of whether I want them to or not,” he said. “They should.”
Davis wasted no time showing fans what was coming, homering in the first game of the season and the one after that and the one after that and the one after that. Pair that with his close to the previous season — homers in six of his last seven games — and it was obvious Davis could produce rare power streaks.
The thing was, he had also done that in Texas and then washed out as a prospect. So some observers spent April and May waiting for the bottom to fall out. That skepticism was pretty well gone when Davis reached the All-Star break with 37 home runs and a decent shot at chasing Roger Maris’ 61, which some consider the nonsteroid record for a single season.
He couldn’t maintain the pace.
Davis struggled in July, just as the baseball world woke to his remarkable performance. He bounced back with nine homers and a .660 slugging average in August before fading again in September, when most of the lineup went into a funk.
In reviewing his season, he was proud that he held the form on a swing he’d rebuilt the previous season and that he wasn’t too hard on himself during down stretches.
“I felt like, especially after the All-Star break, guys were really making adjustments, really coming after me a lot harder,” he said. “And there were times when I was a little inconsistent. But I think for the most part, given everything that’s gone on and what we’ve been through as a team, I’ve done a good job of keeping up with my routine, being consistent and really keeping a good solid approach going.”
For a little perspective, Davis still hit at a 40-homer pace during his uneven second half. That allowed him to pass Brady Anderson’s club record of 50 home runs with almost two weeks to spare. Anderson, now an Orioles executive, cheered from the stands at Fenway Park as Davis crushed a 2-1 slider over the deep center-field wall.
Anderson wasn’t the only past Orioles slugger to join the admiration society.
Jim Gentile, who posted the club’s first big home run season with 46 in 1961, was in town Thursday to congratulate Davis in person. He had earlier sent an encouraging email as Davis pursued the club record.
“Every decade has their star, and this guy is going to be a star for years,” Gentile said.
There are any number of ways to parse Davis’ impressive season. His performance stands out in part because the game is no longer as glutted with home runs as it was a decade ago. Only one other player, reigning American League Most Valuable Player Miguel Cabrera, has cleared even 40 home runs this season.
Across the majors, players have homered every 39.6 plate appearances this season. That’s very similar to the home run climate when Gentile had his big season in 1961. By contrast, when Anderson hit his 50 in 1996, players homered every 35.7 plate appearances.
The analytics website Fangraphs.com recently ran a study of all the 50-homer seasons from the past 50 years and found that Davis’ was one of the more impressive compared to league norms. The site ranked his season 10th out of 28 since 1965. By the Fangraphs measure, his power performance doesn’t stand out compared with the best of Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. But then, there’s no evidence that Davis has used performance-enhancing drugs as Bonds and McGwire admitted to doing.
Home runs aren’t the only impressive part of Davis’ power hitting from 2013. He also has 42 doubles, tied for seventh in the majors entering Sunday. How rare is it to see such a pairing of homers and doubles? Only one other player has hit at least 53 homers and at least 42 doubles in the same season: a guy by the name of Babe Ruth.