In the offseason, Big League Stew honors a birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career. Please join us in lighting the candles.
Charles "Chili" Davis has one of the coolest nicknames — literally — in baseball history. How did he get it? According to SABR historian Rory Costello, quoting Davis in a 1982 article in The Sporting News, it came from a bad haircut his father gave him:
"My dad gave me a haircut...and it wasn't a very good one. When I went out of the house, my friends got on my case and said it looked like someone put a chili bowl over my head and cut around it."
Chili Davis was the first Jamaican-born player in the major leagues, and certainly the best hitter ever to emerge from the island. Thing is, there isn't a lot of competition. After Davis debuted in 1981, Devon White came up in 1985, followed by utility player Rolando Roomes in 1988, and finally pitcher Justin Masterson in 2008. (Masterson doesn't have Jamaican roots; he was born in Jamaica because his father, a minister, worked at a seminary there. His family moved to the United States a few years after his birth.)
Davis and White are essentially the only two full-time players ever produced by Jamaica. They were switch-hitting outfielders who were born about three years apart, and had careers that were almost identically valuable: Davis was a great designated hitter but provided little defensive value at outfield, while White was a terrific defensive center fielder but only an average hitter.
Davis made three All-Star teams and won three World Series rings, with the Twins in 1991 and Yankees in 1998-99. He's fifth on the all-time home run list for switch-hitters with 350, behind Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray, Chipper Jones and Lance Berkman, who passed him in 2011. (Mark Teixeira has 314, and could pass Davis this year.)
Best Year: 1984 San Francisco Giants: .315/.368/.507, 21 HRs, 81 RBIs, 12 SB/8 CS, 42 BB/74 K, 5.3 rWAR
At first glance, this might not look like Davis's best season. It was certainly his first good year: The 24-year-old had been in the majors for four years — three of them full seasons in the Giants outfield — but this was the first time he had put together a campaign that was well above average, and it resulted in his first of three All-Star selections. Still, considering that Davis hit 20 or more home runs 10 different times, you might think that I'd go for one of the years with slightly gaudier stats.
But you have to remember the context. 1984 was in the heart of the 1980s, a year when a 19-year-old Doc Gooden went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA and three different men stole more than 70 bases; it was a decade when stolen bases were at a premium (encouraged by managers like Whitey Herzog, whose "Whiteyball" was predicated on the swipe), power pitchers like Gooden, Bret Saberhagen, Roger Clemens and Orel Hershiser were dominating with video game numbers, and home runs were relatively hard to come by, compared to the explosion in the 1990s and 2000s. The average major leaguer hit .260/.323/.385 that year, so Davis was absolutely one of the best hitters in the game. He had other good years, but never stood out among his peers more than he did in 1984. And after he became a full-time DH in 1991, he never really had a chance.
Worst Year: 1993 California Angels: .243/.327/.440, 27 HRs, 112 RBIs, 4 SB/1 CS, 71 BB/135 K, 0.2 rWAR
It may seem counterintuitive, but the year that Davis set his personal career high in RBIs — the only time in his career that he topped 100 — it was also arguably the worst season of his career. He was a full-time designated hitter for the Angels at that point, and he batted cleanup in nearly every game of the season. But his low on-base percentage essentially negated all the value of his power, and 1993 was a year when major-league offense started to rise in a big way. That year, the average major leaguer hit .265/.332/.403, five points higher than Davis in OBP and just 37 points lower in slugging. For a guy whose only job was hitting, that was a decidedly unimpressive showing.
That wasn't his only bad year. He was pretty wretched from 1987 to 1990, hitting .264/.340/.429 with forgettable defense, good for just 4.3 Wins Above Replacement in four years. In the middle of 1990, he became a full-time DH, and his hitting improved.
Off the field: Earlier this offseason, the Oakland Athletics named Chili Davis their hitting coach. Last year he played the same role for the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox. This will be Davis' first season coaching in the major leagues, and as MLB.com points out, the A's have two switch-hitters penciled into their 2012 lineup, Jemile Weeks and Cliff Pennington. "Any switch-hitters are going to benefit," Davis said on a conference call. But then he made it clear that the opportunity meant a great deal more to him.
"I've always loved the Bay Area. I started my career there, and I think part of the huge excitement for me is that I am in the Bay Area and I get to spend time there again. I think it makes this even more special, being back there...
"I love the interaction with players, and I love the game — watching the game, talking about the game, anything."