Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is making baseball history, and not in a good way. Once a fearsome slugger—Davis led the American League with 53 home runs in 2013, and hit 38 as recently as 2016—he has lost whatever it is that allows a baseball player to hit a ball thrown at him at up to 100 mph. Last season, at the advanced baseball age of 32 when most players, not all, but most, begin to decline, Davis fell off the metaphorical cliff.
His batting average was .168, the worst in major league history for a regular, with a horrible .539 OPS (On base percentage plus slugging percentage), and a -2.5 WAR, meaning that the Orioles would have won 2.5 more games with a borderline major leaguer from the minors playing in his place. There were no injuries or other explanations for Davis’s sudden morph into an automatic out, and sometimes, not always, but sometimes, players bounce back a little bit after such a so-called “collapse” season.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that this won’t happen in Davis’s case. So far in 2019, Davis is 0-for-23 with 13 strikeouts this season and is hitless in 44 at-bats since last September 14. That’s within two outs of the record for consecutive hitless at-bats by a non-pitcher.
Want to know why baseball’s free agents over the age of 30 didn’t get the big long term contracts they expected this off-season? Look no further than the Orioles’ predicament with Davis. They had to pay him 23 million dollars to be the worst player in baseball last season, when Baltimore lost 118 games. They are on the hook for the same amount this year, and three more seasons after that.
The Orioles don’t want to not play their highest paid player, though eventually they will have no choice. (Last year’s manager, Buck Showalter, was foolish to play him as much as he did, though it’s possible the manager was being ordered to do so.) Davis can’t be traded, and if he’s released, the Orioles still have to pay the whole amount they owe him now.
Chris Davis is reputed to be a good team mate and an admirable man. If he is, then the ethical course should be clear. He can’t do the job he was paid to do. He’s killing the team. If he were injured and unable to play, the Orioles could have collected the insurance on his salary, but you can’t get insurance to cover a player’s just losing it.
Assuming Davis doesn’t suddenly rediscover his batting stroke in a couple weeks, an increasingly unlikely scenario, he should call a press conference and do what some baseball players better than he have done when they realized they could no longer play at the level they were paid to. Quit. Retire. Say that he has too much respect for the game, his team mates, Baltimore, the Orioles, its fans, and himself to keep on with the embarrassing futility of trying to play major league baseball when he no longer has the skill to do so while receiving millions to fail. Then he should walk away, an Ethics Hero, and a model of integrity.
Now let’s not over-estimate the sacrifice this would entail. Davis would be forfeiting 69 million dollars plus whatever’s left for 2019, but he already has earned almost 119 million. It’s not like his family will be eating cat food, and he will have the pleasure of proving that he didn’t want to get millions for a job he could no longer do well, or even adequately. Moreover, he will be helping his team be better by quitting than he would by playing the only way he can—badly.
If Davis wants to cushion the blow, of course, he could negotiate a buy-out of his contract. Th e Orioles would certainly be thrilled to pay many millions to save many more. But he shouldn’t do that. He should just quit. Last season he was an albatross on the Orioles, an aviary monstrosity.
This season he can be a hero. Much better.