Davis' steady hand behind A's offensive success
Oakland players credit hitting coach for collective surge at plate this month
OAKLAND -- There was a time not too long ago when A's hitters looked overmatched on most nights. They generously gave away outs, particularly with runners in scoring position. Pop fly, strikeout, another pop fly -- too many could-be, should-be, would-be rallies were put to rest this way.
The club dropped 16 of its first 32 games after the All-Star break, batting just .195 in such situations.
Yoenis Cespedes' promising rookie campaign was starting to feel illusory. So, too, was Josh Reddick's 32-homer season. Brandon Moss wasn't right, and neither was Coco Crisp. Chris Young? Well, he was becoming invisible. Young's average, at least, basically was.
Yet these players are the same ones who have helped the A's form a 6 1/2-game lead in the American League West, with just 13 games to play. The same stragglers are now walking to the plate with an extra giddy-up in their step, a boat load of confidence and, oh yeah, a whole lot of hitting coach Chili Davis' teachings.
"Recently, the offense has been very good, and we've put up a lot of runs, a lot of hits," said Nate Freiman. "Guys have hit the ball out of the park, and it's coming at a great time. It could not come at a better time. Chili's part of that."
Freiman is known to often overstay his welcome in the cages with Davis -- "I could hit all day," he said, "but sometimes he tells me, politely, my time is over in there and I need to leave" -- and he's not the only one drawn to him.
Davis is the 10th man in the lineup. He's the proud teacher, even more so the listener and the encourager. Davis is a big reason why Oakland's once-dismal offense is no longer overlooked but looked at with respect. He's a hitter's hitter -- a hitting coach who, like many who bear the same title, doesn't really get the type of credit he deserves.
Not that Davis wants it.
"All I want is for them to know I care," said Davis, who spent 19 years as one of the best switch-hitters to play the game. "You listen, they tend to listen. Then they trust you."
The A's are listening, and they're hitting. In turn, they're winning again, Sunday's decisive series-sweeping victory over the Rangers their 16th in the last 20. And they're doing it against some of the league's top pitchers -- Yu Darvish, Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, David Price. Max Scherzer might have escaped a loss against Oakland, but not a beating.
The approach against them is rather straightforward. The reward is a heap of confidence.
"If we can minimize the amount of times we get ourselves out and force the pitcher to get us out, over the course of a year, I guarantee you we're going to be better hitters average-wise, we're going to walk more, we're going to get pitches to hit, and we're going to hit the ball more consistently," said Davis.
"Pitchers don't always get you out. They entice you to swing at pitches to get yourself out. Our aggressiveness in some counts and some situations, we tend to leave our strike zone and go after pitches because we're trying to make something happen so desperately that we become overanxious. If we can continue to overcome that and maintain the discipline as a hitter, as we've been doing, we're going to minimize the times we get ourselves out."
Cespedes, batting .226 through the end of August, has 19 hits -- including three home runs -- in 51 September at-bats spanning 13 games, eight of which resulted in multihit performances. Reddick has totaled seven home runs in his last 19 games, after hitting just five in his first 82 contests. Crisp has hit safely in 18 of his last 23 games, with nine home runs in that span, while Young is riding a season-high seven-game hitting streak, his average finally above the Mendoza Line.
Davis regularly provides scouting reports of the opposing teams' pitchers, per the basic duties of his job. But last season, he also started giving his hitters, who own the fifth-best OPS mark in the Majors at .740, scouting reports on themselves.
That's how Josh Donaldson came to know himself as a hitter -- a hitter who will carry a .302 average into the season's final two weeks, including a .342 clip vs. left-handers. Among AL players, only Miguel Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta have hit for higher averages against southpaws.
Davis also aided Derek Norris, who, once upon a time, felt lost in the batter's box, "like I had never stepped foot in one," he recalled.
"One day, I told Chili, 'I'm going to do something that just feels different,'" Norris said. "So I started a little leg kick thing, and before I knew it, I just felt more balanced and we went with it. He said, 'Let's just not make it too complicated.' So it was about maintaining and trying to build off of what we discovered. He does a pretty good job of keeping things simple."
Norris is batting .351 with five of his eight home runs since July 1, after those lowly May and June months had amounted to a .163 clip.
The catcher belongs to a low-budget collection of role players who, through the platoon, are constantly put in position to succeed. Since last season, when Davis arrived from Boston's Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket after working as a part-time hitting coach for the Dodgers' instructional league team and the Australian National Team, the A's are 182-129. That's the second-best mark in the Majors in that time.
They also have 362 home runs. Only the Orioles, Yankees, Blue Jays and Rangers have more since the start of 2012. In Oakland's previous two seasons, it combined for 223. Tied with the Padres, there's was the third-lowest mark in all of baseball.
"I think Chili's doing a great job. Obviously the numbers have shown," Norris said. "It could be a coincidence, but ever since he came here, we've hit a lot more home runs, and it's tough to do with the places we play. He's here for a reason. He's a good influence on us. He's a very intelligent person, not just in baseball but in life, and he's a good person for us to look up to."
"In a role most of us are in here," said Freiman, "you can't spend too much time tinkering with mechanics. You need to identify what you do well and what you're comfortable with and stick with that. He's not the kind of guy that sees a hitter and says, 'You need to change.' Instead of spending his energy trying to change people, he spends his energy identifying what you do well, trying to get you to that point. It's great for us."
Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.