First baseman Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles currently leads Major League Baseball with 44 homers and 112 RBI through 118 games, with an overall season line of .299/.374/.682. His 5.7 WAR ranks third overall in the American League and sixth overall in the majors as a whole. Although he slumped in July, with his OPS dipping down to .794 that month, he's got that back up to 1.057 in August thanks to a .744 SLG this month.
I don't think anyone expected him to hit .320 all year, and even if his batting average continues to slip, this is a remarkable season, especially considering that Davis was almost written off as recently as two summers ago.
Davis was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the fifth round in 2006, from Navarro Junior College in Texas. He was a two-way player in college with a 90-93 MPH fastball and a possible future on the mound, but his power was even better than his arm and scouts preferred him as a hitter. He signed for $172,500, then went to Spokane in the Northwest League and hit .255 with 15 homers, 23 walks, and 65 strikeouts in 253 at-bats. He hit four consecutive home runs at one point.
Scouts were very impressed with his power, but noted that his swing was long and wondered if he'd hit for sufficient average and show an adequate eye at higher levels. I rated him as a Grade C+ entering 2007, noting the unanswered questions but intrigued with the power.
Moved up to Bakersfield in the California League to open '07, he hit .298/.340/.573 with 24 homers, 22 walks, and 123 strikeouts in 386 at-bats over 99 games. Promoted to Double-A Frisco in late July, he didn't skip a beat, hitting .294/.371/.688 with 12 homers, 13 walks, and 27 strikeouts in 109 at-bats. He was mainly a third baseman at this stage but was error-prone with mediocre range. The bat was clearly the special part of his game; he had enormous power and didn't have any problems bringing this to Double-A.
It is notable that the combination of power with a high strikeout rate and questions about plate discipline is a theme for Rangers prospects even today.
In terms of grading, I saw Davis play late in the year for Frisco and was quite impressed. He clobbered any fastball thrown his way when I saw him, but breaking stuff and changeups were problematic; sometime he handled them, sometime he didn't. At times he did a good job controlling the zone and handling what the pitcher was doing, not often enough to qualify as a "pure hitter" and certainly not a contact guy, but just often enough that you could conclude he wasn't just a brutal slugger.
I gave him a Grade B+ entering 2008, writing that Davis could develop "into a Dean Palmer type, a low-batting-average-slugger-with-big-power, at worst. If his plate discipline remains decent and he keeps his batting average up, he could be a lot better than that."
2008 looked like the "a lot better than that" outcome: he hit .333/.376/.618 with 13 homers in 46 games for Frisco, .333/.402/.685 with 10 homers in 31 games for Triple-A Oklahoma City, and .285/.331/.549 with 17 homers in 80 games for the Rangers, losing his rookie eligibility and thriving as one of the best rookie hitters in the game. He also struck out a lot, whiffing 88 times in those 80 games for the Rangers.
You know the story from here. Davis hit 21 homers in 113 games for the Rangers in '09, but his strikeout problems got out of control, whiffing 150 times in just 391 at-bats, helping to result in a weak .238/.284/.442 mark with a poor 85+ OPS and a wRC+ of only 80. 2010 was even worse: he spent most of the year in Triple-A and blasted the ball, hitting .327/.383/.520, but managed just .192 with one homer in 120 at-bats for the Rangers. He struggled with the glove at third base, wasn't hitting enough for first, and fell out of the picture in Texas.
He slugged 24 homers in just 48 games for Triple-A Round Rock in '11, but this was enough to get him traded to Baltimore. As you know, he has pretty good last year (.270/.326/.501, 33 homers, 121 OPS+, WAR 2.0), then surged to lead the AL in OPS in '13.
So, what do we make of this?
Davis is 27 years old, which is the classic season for a player to peak. He's always had terrific power, and he's always had issues with strikeouts. He's still striking out at a fast clip this year of course. In the minors, Davis would go through stretches were he would show reasonable knowledge of the strike zone and decent hitting skills to go with the brute force. It took time, but he was finally able to tap into that ability more often at the major league level.
As for the Dean Palmer comp I made when Davis was in the minors, Palmer was a career .251/.324/.472 hitter, OPS+ 107. Davis is currently at .267/.324/.514, OPS +120. Interestingly their OBPs are an exact match, but Palmer played during an era of high offense so his numbers aren't as good as Davis' in context. He was also a right-handed hitter and a better fielder at third base than Davis.
It is interesting to note that Palmer's best season was at age 27 (.280/.348/.527, 38 homers). He remained an effective home run hitter through age 31.
I don't know that Davis is a guy who will necessarily age well. When his hand-eye coordination starts to slip, he could lose some of his current edge. But for now and likely for the next few years at least, he's one of the most productive sluggers in the game.