How to Break a Slump

No major leaguer wants to be there. Down. Out. Can't catch a break. For Chris Davis, going 0-for-54 was humiliating. Now, he's finding his way again one swing at a time.
photo of Scott MillerScott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistApril 23, 2019

When Chris Davis stood at first base, grinned and asked for the ball after finally and mercifully busting out of an 0-for-54 slump this month, who couldn't help but smile along with him?

In one form or another, we've all been there. This was you at five, finally swimming after swallowing a few gallons of pool water while struggling to learn. You at 16, getting that dream date following numerous rejections. You at 40, finally successful on a home-repair project after banging your head against a wall for a week trying to figure it out.

Oh, Davis had been banging his head against a wall all right—the mother of all walls. His oh-fer set a record for futility for an everyday player (non-pitcher), surpassing Eugenio Velez's 0-for-46 in 2010-11. No matter what Davis did—start, pinch-hit, take extra batting practice, skip regular batting practice, connect with a fastball squarely, connect softly—he couldn't find a hit. No bloops, bleeders, squibbers, duck snorts, doinkers, Texas leaguers or even Baltimore chops. (You'd think an Oriole, of all people, could grab a Baltimore chop at his convenience, no? Oh, the inhumanity!)

Turns out, a Saturday afternoon single to right field in Fenway Park fueled Davis' flight to freedom.

"It was awesome," says San Diego's Manny Machado, a teammate of Davis' in Baltimore from 2012-18. "It sucks to be in that situation. We all know what it feels like. I was excited for him. I know a low of people were."

That's no exaggeration.

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"I was really happy to hear he got a hit," Colorado's Nolan Arenado says. "You don't want to see somebody struggling like that in this game, especially people making fun of him.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 13: Chris Davis #19 of the Baltimore Orioles on first base during the sixth inning of the game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on April 13, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

"Fans and people who don't understand how hard it is ... the mental part of this is hard. That's what separates the men from the boys."

Arenado knows: In September, as the Rockies were racing the Los Angeles Dodgers down the stretch, Arenado without warning fell into an 0-for-15 hole with six strikeouts. One day he was a National League Most Valuable Player candidate, and then suddenly he couldn't buy a hit with a Visa Gold card and unlimited credit.

"It feels like hits are so far away," Arenado says. "It feels like there are so many outfielders and infielders. It feels like there's not nine players out there; it feels like way more.

"It's just frustrating, because you feel so good before that moment."

Baseball, we hear endlessly, is a game of failure: Even the best hitters fail seven of 10 times at the plate. But even more than that, it is a game that reveals a man's vulnerabilities. Opponents find the hole in a swing and exploit it. Hitters feast on a pitcher who can't hit the corners. As this plays out, baseball reminds us of our own vulnerabilities and shows us that the trick is to pick ourselves up and keep pushing, because tomorrow is a new day. As former manager Jim Leyland likes to say, Hey, the other guys drive Cadillacs, too.

"Obviously, your family lives and dies with you; they want you to have success every time," Arenado says. "I think what makes it hard, too, is that everybody starts giving their input about what you need to do, what you need to change. Everyone starts having all the answers when deep down nobody really does except yourself.

"They start coming out of the woodwork, saying how they can fix you or how trash you are. You hear all these different things, and it starts to beat up on people."

When Derek Jeter ended an epic 0-for-32 skid at the start of the 2004 season with a home run against Oakland, he wondered if a bird instead was going to get in the way of the long fly ball and knock it into an outfielder's glove.

Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell remembers suffering through an 0-for-45 run as a utility man for the Brewers in 2011. "The thing that was different for me was I did it over a very long stretch of time," he says. "I wasn't playing every day. I was playing very infrequently, to be honest with you. So it was once or twice a week, pinch-hit at-bats.

"In a lot of ways it went unnoticed—not unnoticed, but it wasn't like the media was complaining to [manager] Ron Roenicke that he was putting me in the lineup too much. Let's put it that way, know what I mean?"

Counsell chuckles, acknowledging that even on the few days on which Roenicke did write his name in the lineup, it couldn't have been easy for the manager.

"Look, it stinks," Counsell says. "You're obviously in a big hole and you're struggling and you've tried a lot of things and nothing's working. It's frustrating. It's embarrassing. ... Your teammates are all pulling for you ridiculously hard; you sense that too. I'm sure he's gone through all that stuff."

What made Davis' drought different was that it sabotaged what was supposed to be a fresh start following one of the worst statistical seasons in MLB history. In 128 games and 522 plate appearances in 2018, he batted .168/.243/.296 with 16 homers and 49 RBI. His minus-3.1 WAR was the seventh-worst mark since 1901, according to FanGraphs.

He couldn't hide either, having signed a seven-year, $161 million deal in January 2016.

"I think sometimes when you're upset about it, you don't realize how good that pitcher is," Arenado says. "You just think it's your fault for being a really bad baseball player.

"You lose sight of what's really going on when that happens."

Davis was booed vociferously during Baltimore's home opener and for a few games thereafter, but by the end of Baltimore's first homestand, something heartening happened: The vitriol turned to empathy. Fans at Camden Yards started to cheer him. The support continued on the road, when the Orioles headed to Fenway Park, even as the drought dragged on. The message seemed to be: It's one thing to buy a ticket, plop down in a box seat and take out your frustrations on some bum who hacks weakly at a curveball, but it's a wholly different thing to repeatedly kick a man when he's down. Even if he is making $161 million (with deferred payments running all the way through 2037).

Through it all, Davis persisted.

"It's hard because you feel the pressure. You feel like everyone in the stadium, your teammates, everyone, is watching you to see if you're finally going to get a hit," Arenado says. "It's a bad feeling."

The applause Davis got when the ball found a patch of grass and the infernal streak finally had concluded is something that will stay with him. Especially the outwardly emotional reaction he saw when he looked across the diamond to the Orioles dugout, where an overjoyed flock of teammates flapped their wings and hollered good things. And when he walked into the clubhouse after the game, everyone greeted him by banging on their lockers and cheering loudly.

Yes, as Counsell, Arenado and many others before Davis have learned, your teammates do root for you ridiculously hard.

"That's probably been the biggest pick-me-up moment in this whole thing, aside from getting the hit," Davis told reporters afterward. "Just having the guys day in and day out pick me up, constantly helping me stay in a positive mindset. I mean, that's what it's all about."

Isn't it? Davis has had a dickens of a time these past two years, but he works hard, keeps at it and moves forward with tremendous dignity. Before the game, he asked a coach if it would be bush-league to get the ball, should he break the streak. "He said: 'Absolutely not. I think it's a veteran, pro move.' It meant a lot to me," Davis told reporters. "... I don't know what I'm going to do with it, but I'm going to do something special."

In the time of his greatest humiliation, he was conscientious enough to think of others. Now, he plans to auction the ball and give the proceeds to the University of Maryland Children's Hospital—one more classy reminder that the same holds true in baseball as in life: How you act when things are not going well reveals far more about a person's character than how you behave when things are great. Because that last part is the easy part. The trick is to keep swinging and maintain your composure when you're in that 0-for-54 hole, when nothing is dropping and the quicksand is sucking you into the earth.

The beauty of it is, in baseball and in life, you've got tomorrow to make it better.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.